Park the drones: practice what you preach in training

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“There’s really no great secret. From time to time I bring friends along to watch us train. We invite them here and they think they are going to discover some great secrets and what they see is four cones, and exercises that concentrate in retention and touch of the ball – nothing else, really”. – Gerard Pique.

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“For a young player, technique is more important than speed, strength or physique. Thierry already had great balance and co-ordination, but some bad footballing habits. So we worked on his technique for three years.” – Christian Damiano, one of Thierry Henry’s coaches at Clairefontaine’s

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“Everything’s been strategically periodized. We haven’t played much soccer. We’ve been in the gym. We’ve been running.” – Carmelina Moscato

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“The Girls Elite REX staff recently set up a drone camera at their training sessions, which allows Canada Soccer REX director and U-17 head coach Bev Priestman to watch live from home.

“She keeps a heavy hand in what we’re doing to make sure they’re developing as she’d want them to,” Humphries said.” – Whitecapsfc.com

 

Keep these quotes in mind as you read the rest of this.

When you watch the sort-of documentary, Rise, a film about the Canadian Women’s National Team, it shows them as they progress from coming last in the 2011 World Cup through to getting a bronze medal at the Olympics and then their focused preparations for this World Cup. Throughout the film you get glimpses of the lengths that the team has gone to prepare. Loads of off-field gym work, fitness testing, ensuring proper sleep, ensuring the team bonded well and outlining how communication flowed between players and coaches to ensure harmony. A few times, without much explanation but seemingly as a tool to teach them to focus and/or stay calm, it showed players hooked up to a laptop running BrainPaint.

It was made clear several times by Herdman that the team’s style of play needed to improve if they were to be contenders at the World Cup. “The end goal in 2015 and 2016 is getting on the podium. We’ve gotta take our game forward. And to do that we’re gonna have to go backwards. We’re gonna try some new things. We’re gonna try some new players and hopefully (in the 2015 World Cup Final) we will play a brand of football that people will go, ‘Wow, this is fantastic.’ I’m just asking the country to be patient…when we’re here (in BC Place) in 2015, that’s when it matters.”

The country was patient because the reality is that interest in the team dips massively between Olympics and World Cups. They had the luxury to try to re-invent themselves in a three year down cycle when expectations were almost non-existent because there’s barely anyone tracking how they do in things like the (untelevised) Cyprus Cup or tournaments in China that draw crowds, at best, in the hundreds.

Herdman went so far as to tell his team they were going to try to play like FC Barcelona and gave each of them a Barcelona player to model themselves on. At some point two things must have become apparent to Herdman. Not enough of his current players were going to transition to their Barcelona persona in time for the World Cup and there were not enough young players coming through that were good enough technically to replace them.

What we’ll probably never be able to ascertain is whether there was enough of a commitment by Herdman and his staff to improve technical skills to the point where they could play a possession based game against the best women’s team in the world or was there too much time spent on fitness, GPS monitors, relaxation exercises…

Herdman had realized they simply had not been able to transition to playing anything like Barcelona. So the messaging changed. The goal now was to be the fittest, most tactically organized and connected team in the tournament. That’s pretty much a direct quote from Herdman.

I’ve often defended John Herdman and agreed that he had to try to move the team from a style of play that would see it languish off the pace the best were setting and get them moving towards the French and Japanese national teams. I still contend that he’s been let down by the fact that we don’t have enough 17-23 year olds coming through the system that can play this way and evolve into key national team players. He’s been here for less than four years. Our development programs are not sufficient and that can’t be pinned on him when he’s had to qualify for an Olympics, go to the Olympics and play, as host, in a World Cup since he’s been here.

But we clearly all know now that our women’s team is nowhere near as good technically as the top countries in the world and every day that is spent focusing on anything other than being on the field improving technical play and decision making is a waste of valuable time. The players don’t need gimmicks, things that ‘may’ slightly improve an ability of secondary or tertiary importance in their game. We don’t have that luxury at this point. We need players who want to be flawless with a ball at their feet and we need coaches who are willing and able to facilitate that.

That’s not an anti-technology rant from an old-school coach running around saying, “It was good enough for us in the 80’s, it’s good enough for them now.” There’s a role for technology. It’s to supplement and complement. It should not be a shiny bauble that is the focus of preparation. Herdman pitched the “four corners” philosophy of needing to attend to players in four areas.

Screen Shot 2015-07-20 at 2.36.38 PM

Techncial/Tactical, Physical, Social/Emotional and Psychological/Mental. I’d be interested to know how this was interpreted by the Canadian Women’s National team staff. We’ve seen and heard lots of reference to being the most “connected” team at the tournament (social/emotional and psychological/mental) and we’ve seen and heard lots to do with the gym workouts, fitness tracking and desire to be the fittest team at the tournament (physical).

But if you want to transform your team to being something like Barcelona, 80% of your effort has to be in developing technical skills. Plain and simple.Our issue was not fitness and if we were so connected why are stories leaking to the press about player unrest regarding playing time? If you can’t receive a ball under pressure and pass to a teammate, NONE OF THE OTHER STUFF MATTERS.

Park the drone, disconnect the GPS gear, stop working on your quads in the gym. Get a ball and stay on the field until you’re better. I hope that’s the overwhelming emphasis of the CSA’s REX programs. That’s what we need in general in this country and that’s what the women’s national team needs specifically. And that’s what they do in Barcelona.

 

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WWC: Into the quarters – how they got there and who should win

The storylines get much more focused once you get down to eight teams. It’s easier to keep them all in your head and not be distracted by the incessant barrage of fluff stories revolving around potential upsets, cinderella stories, individual battles against odds. It’s simple now and a good opportunity to take stock of the teams that got here, who looks poised to continue and who may be a bit bewildered at the company they are keeping.

Old guard represented

First thing worth noting is that we have not seen a changing of the guard. In the previous six World Cups, the USA has won two, Germany has also won two and Japan won the last one in 2011. The only previous champion to not make the quarter finals is Norway who won it in twenty years ago in 1995.

In fact if you include all the countries that have been second, third or fourth as well, the only other ones not represented in these quarter finals are Sweden and Brazil, both of whom were eliminated in the round of sixteen.

Flipping that around there are two debutantes in the quarter finals who previously have never placed in the top four; England and Australia. Canada’s sole top four appearance was a fourth place finish in 2003.

So familiar faces abound. My preference would have been to see Cameroon advance but few others can really feel hard done by.

How they got to this point

China: They entered with low expectations based on the ‘rebuilding’ trope abetted by tales of a key injury to their leading striker. Their last minute loss to Canada put them behind the eight ball but a win against the Dutch and a draw, aided by the bizarre attempt at time wasting by their manager Hao Wei, against New Zealand saw them through to the second round. In that game against Cameroon they were second best in every stat aside from goals scored and went through 1-0. In other words, hardly convincing and heavily reliant on keeper Wang Fei.

USA: Naturally there’s been no shortage of coverage of the USWNT. What has been perhaps most surprising is that the star in supposed decline, Abby Wambach, has not only played ahead of a younger, more dynamic group of strikers in Alex Morgan, Kirsten Press and Sydney Leroux but has outshone all of them and quieted many, including myself, who thought she would be more of an anchor than a lifeline for the team given the necessity of playing to her strengths (ie. in the air) if she’s going to be on the field. Rested against Sweden, it’s telling that the team has not scored a goal while Wambach has been on the bench.

But the focus has really been on Wambach more than it should. Megain Rapinoe is a fantastic player and clearly making a bid to be considered the best female player in the world at this tournament. And while we like to go on about our own Kadeisha Buchanan, fledgling American centreback Julie Johnston, who just turned 20, is giving Buchanan a run for her money as best defender at this World Cup.

But it’s really been paint by numbers for the team so far with little flair beyond Rapinoe and a reliance on Wambach that at some point may become an over-reliance. But when the Plan B attacking mode (Press, Leroux, Morgan) has proven to be slow out the gates, it’s not a surprise that manager Jill Ellis is going to stick with Wambach and the aerial attack that plays to her strengths.

Germany: Only tested by Norway (1-1 draw) in their round robin group, the Germans topped their group on goal difference but that arguably gave them a tougher opponent in Sweden in the round of 16 than second place Norway, who still managed to lose to England in their game. The Germans clearly found their game against Sweden and embarrassed Pia Sundhage’s team 4-1. Credentials re-asserted, their quarter final fixture against France is actually the game I thought would be the final. Germany will need keeper Nadine Angerer to be on form as France have scored fantastic goals from both in close and from distance.

France: The French have been two different teams in their four games so far. Sluggish against the English in their opening 1-0 win and then fully asleep against Colombia in a two-nil loss, reality jolted them back to their strengths and they piled misery on top of Mexico scoring three times in the opening 13 minutes on their way to a 5-0 win. In the round of sixteen another early blitzkrieg against South Korea put them up two-nil after just eight minutes. They won three-nil and all three goals were among the best you’ll see at the tournament. They are on form and a treat to watch when this is the case.

Japan: It was hard to tell in Japan’s round robin games if they were deliberately playing in second gear or if the team’s good-enough-to-win approach was an indication their star power was fading. The second round match against the Dutch clearly answered that as an emphatic performance capped by a wonderful second goal signalled they were indeed the defending champions and were not going to be rolling over.

Australia: I watched Australia train when they were in Vancouver. What looked like a team of wickedly athletic Pellerudians at the time was really just them preparing for their first game against the Americans. They played 10v9 on a three quarter field attacking one goal and every time the ball got played out to an assistant coach filling in at right back he woofed a 40 yard ball into the mix for the centre backs to battle for against strikers. Clearly, in retrospect, they knew this was what they’d be facing in a Wambach led American attack and they were right. While they lost that game 3-1, the Aussies their win over Nigeria and draw with Sweden allowed them to finish second, thus avoiding Germany and getting Brazil. Seeing they were more sophisticated than mere long ball merchants, I picked them (on Twitter) to beat Brazil who had looked unconvincing in an easy group. Now they face Japan in what will be a strong contrast in styles.

England: Aside from Lucy Bronze’s cracking winner against Norway, England have relied heavily on set pieces. A fortunate free kick against Colombia resulted in their first goal (off the rebound from the shot) and an even more fortunate penalty sealed victory. Two goals against a sub-par Mexico can’t disguise the fact that, like Canada, the goals are scarce and seldom the result of deliberate, inventive build up play. Factor in that their keeper, Karen Bardsley, imported from California, has run the gamut from shakier than Shane MacGowan on the wagon for a month to decidedly…competent and they will have their work cut out for them if they want to advance.

Canada: Of course we’ll leave Canada for last. I really want to be positive. I do. I went to the Switzerland game and I’ll be at the England game on Saturday. I get excited every odd half chance that comes along and felt really happy for them when they held on against the Swiss to advance. But in the cold light of a computer screen reality trumps all that. The simple truth is that while we did win our group, if we had missed our penalty against China in the opening game and New Zealand had scored theirs against us rather than hitting the crossbar, all other things unchanged, Canada would not have advanced. We would be out and the same inquisition that followed the three and out performance in 2011 would just be gathering steam. That’s how thin the margins were. We have scored three goals in four games. A penalty, a fortuitous bounce from a deflection off a Dutch defender that led to an Ashley Lawrence side footer from ten yards and a nice finish from forward slash defender slash forward Josee Belanger off of what was either a very quick thinking set up from Sinclair or a flukey touch off her boot as she was pressured by a Swiss defender. Three goals in four games no matter how you slice it. On the positive side, we’ve only given up one goal and that came as a result of having to leave a crucial clearance to someone other than Kadeisha Buchanan. Rough few days for Carmelina Moscato what with Latham-gate but she had to do better than bash that ball off the Dutch attackers shins. It broke in behind her and the Dutch finished nicely.

What are the positives for Canada? Pretty obvious really. Buchanan has been outstanding every game. Alyssha Chapman has been almost as good but has had some luck surviving a couple of desperation tackles that could well have been penalties (she conceded the penalty against New Zealand) or free kicks in critical areas. Erin McLeod has been a rock when she’s had to be. The players you need to be solid rather than liabilities have for the most part held their end of the bargain. Playing Belanger at right back has proven to be a smart decision by John Herdman. Desiree Scott is getting stronger as the tournament goes on. Ashley Lawrence has not let us down. Kaylyn Kyle has been commanding when she has come on and when she has started. Perhaps the most amazing thing about the team’s run to the quarter finals is that they have done it with their two best players being non-factors. Sophie Schmidt has been unable to find her form and Christine Sinclair, aside from laying off the ball to Schmidt for the shot that got blocked and fell to Lawrence for the goal against the Dutch and perhaps assisting on Belanger’s goal against Switzerland has done nothing but miss three chances against New Zealand. As I said in an earlier article though, we cannot expect Sinclair to carry this team. Those days are done. She needs a supporting cast and that has to be led by Schmidt. I struggle to think of a single pass Schmidt has made that has released Sinclair for even a sight at goal. It has to happen now that Canada is actually facing a legitimate challenge in the form of England.

Jonelle Foligno has been passable. Melissa Tancredi and Adriana Leon have been poor, in over their heads at this level really. What was really unfortunate was that Jessie Fleming, after a non-descript game against China when she came on, was just starting to be influential against the Dutch when she was taken off. She didn’t feature against the Swiss so it’s hard to see her get time against England but she’s still one of the few who can operate with a bit of inventiveness in the attacking third. Beyond that, Rhiann Wilkinson is not going to light the world on fire and has been caught out once on a long ball over her head in limited minutes but she is a good choice at right back as it allows the burgeoning Belanger to play as a forward on the right rather than Leon or Tancredi. Lauren Sesselmann is clearly not 100% game fit after her ACL tear but Herdman will likely persist with her.

The match-ups

USA v China. Even without suspended Rapinoe, the only thing standing between a comfortable win for the States is an excellent performance from the impressive Wang Fei in the Chinese goal. This should not be a difficult game for Ellis’ team. Prediction: 2-0 USA

Germany v France. Really a toss up as far as I’m concerned. Whichever team’s strikers and keepers are most on form will likely win it. No prediction just a hope that it turns out to be as great a game as these two teams are capable of delivering.

Japan v Australia. Australia is a bit like the Atletico Madrid or Olympic Marseille of the women’s game. You just don’t look forward to playing them. The longer they keep it close the more difficult physically and mentally it becomes to match them and you run the very real risk of being upset if you’re Japan. Prediction: Japan by one.

Canada v England. A pre-tourney exhibition between the two teams in Hamilton would best be described as 89 minutes of drudgery and a fantastic goal by Schmidt. England have impressed me for 45 minutes but that was the most important 45 of the tournament so far: the second half against Norway. I wish I could say Canada have impressed me for a full 45 minutes but again their best performance was likely the last 20 minutes of the first half against the Swiss and the first 15-20 minutes of the second half in that same game. In a game that will likely be settled by set pieces, even penalty kicks after extra time, I’ll go with my pre-tourney prediction where I said Canada would only advance to the semis if the drew England in the quarter finals. Canada by one.

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CanWNT: now what?

The buzz is building now as teams head into their last round robin games. Most groups are still pretty wide open if not in terms of who will advance then in who will take top spot and get the smoother road through the knockout rounds.

In my post on the eve of the Women’s World Cup I laid out two scenarios for the Canadian women’s team. The one I predicted was that they would win their group and thus gain a relatively easy second round game before being tested in the quarter finals. The corollary to that was what it would look like “if the wheels fell off”. What I didn’t anticipate was how paper thin the difference between these two outcomes actually is.

While I wouldn’t call the penalty decision against China dubious or even soft, it was highly fortuitous both in terms of being both unintentional (don’t think she meant to strike Leon in the face) and incidental (Leon was not in a dangerous position about to score) as well as the fact that it occurred in injury time. Still, it meant we got three points and China got none. We avoided the “nervous draw” I referred to, although Canada were far from firing on all cylinders.

A rough game pretty much bereft of tactics against New Zealand remained scoreless so Canada tops the group on four points after two games. Still, China has three and the Dutch have three so first place is still wide open.

And we haven’t scored a goal from open play yet. If we didn’t score on the penalty we’d be on two points with no goals scored and panic would definitely be setting in.

In a tournament like this you don’t get much time to second guess yourself in terms of player selection. Three round robin games with three subs in each. You really need to make quick, accurate assessments on who is doing well, who isn’t, who needs rest and what the changes are in the areas that aren’t working.

Here’s what’s gone well for Canada in the first two games…

Erin McLeod has been very good. Aside from one semi-whiff on a corner against New Zealand that fortunately hurtled past a charging Kiwi (well marked it should be added) at the far post, she has not been caught coming for balls best left to others. Always able to command her back four, she is clearly an asset to the team.

Alyssha Chapman gave up a penalty. That’s one of only two mistakes she’s made so far. The other was remaining adamant it wasn’t a foul. It was and it’s better to accept that and learn that those will be called eight times out of ten. Would be nice to see her get forward a bit more but overall very strong, very energetic and very smart in her decision making defensively.

Kadeisha Buchanan has been outstanding. Beyond a few misdemeanours she has been for me perhaps the best defender I’ve seen in the tournament. To put that in perspective though, she’s played against the youngest team in the tournament (China) and a team with almost no redeeming attacking features (New Zealand). The Dutch will be a stiffer test as will all games after that.

Ashley Lawrence is deputizing for Diana Matheson as the narrative goes but it may well be a changing of the guard. Consistently competent is not the top of the mountain in terms of superlatives but if we’re looking at realistic expectations for a 19 year old then I think that’s what we should be pleased with. She’s looking like she could be around for many years.

And now it gets thin, especially if we’re measuring players against the potential we know they have. Lauren Sesselmann gets a pass because she’s likely not 100% fit coming off a serious knee injury. Desiree Scott’s work rate across the field to break up attacks has been very good. I just don’t remember her getting possession nearly as much as giving up throw ins. Turnovers in the middle third go a long way in the women’s game to establishing hegemony. Great holding mids win the ball back as opponents start attacks and commit players forward and start the ball moving the other way. Maybe I’m being too harsh but I think Scott and Schmidt are crucial to how we do in the next two, hopefully three, games.

So on to Sophie Schmidt. I said she’s the best player on the team and she herself has publicly said she feels they have let Christine Sinclair down by not providing her with the support and service that the USA provide Wambach. So get her the damned ball in areas she can work with. Every time I see Sinclair drop back into midfield it’s a clear sign Sophine Schmidt is not doing enough. I’ve already lamented that if we’re going to score, we can’t have much expectation from Tancredi (missed two years to go back to school; showing the effects of that), Foligno (just doesn’t score enough period) and Leon (not good enough yet) and if the burden of scoring is once again going to fall to Sinclair, let her conserve energy and focus her movements in areas where she can receive and shoot without having to beat players. It’s not easy when teams are focusing on her and Schmidt clearly is going to be her primary source of opportunities but it just has to happen. Schmidt has got to find ways to get past the first opponent she comes across, confront opponent back fours and force them to adjust to the degree that Sinclair can find space to receive. Jason de Vos pointed at half time in the New Zealand game that Ashley Lawrence had an opportunity to release Sinclair in just such a situation but didn’t. We have to accept that won’t happen as much with a young midfielder. It has to happen with Schmidt.

As for the others Belanger has been good and justified Herdman’s gambit of putting her in for the injured Rhian Wilkinson ahead of the two outside backs (Nault and Gayle) he has on the squad.

Heading into this World Cup,Kaylyn Kyle, for me, has been symptomatic of the fact that we don’t have enough midfielders who can link with forwards but that we still need to play because there’s no one better. In both her substitute appearances though she has been much better in terms of her willingness to look forward and connect with attackers. She may be on the verge of playing herself back into the starting eleven.

I’m not interested in running down Melissa Tancredi but it’s clear she’s in the twilight of her national team career and asking her to play a prominent role in this campaign is just a bridge too far. Tancredi, along with Foligno have, unsurprisingly, been peripheral though.

Before moving on to a suggested lineup for the Dutch game, I just want to make note of the odd substitution patterns Herdman has gone with the first two games.

In both, Kyle, a midfielder, has come on for Foligno, a striker around the 60′ mark. At both times, conventional thinking would suggest we should be looking at attacking options as we need a goal. While Kyle did get forward a touch more than normal, we ostensibly went from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 for ten minutes before Scott was taken off in both games for an attacking player (Fleming in the first game, Leon in the second). The only other subs have been straight swaps with Leon going in up front for Tancredi in the first game and Moscato coming in for Sesselman at centre back.

It’s an interesting tactic, briefly going away from 4-3-3 before going back to it and quite honestly I don’t understand what the rationale for it is other than perhaps the real-time metrics being gathered from the gear the players are clearly wearing under their shirts indicating that some are fatiguing and need replacing. That still doesn’t really explain why Leon, rather than Kyle, doesn’t replace Foligno. Perhaps Herdman is hoping to draw a tactical response from teams as they see Canada switch to a 4-4-2 and then force another adjustment or make their burn a sub in their response as he switches back to 4-3-3 with Kyle now in the holding mid position and a fresh forward on the field. Hard to say.

One thing that is clear is that while we look solid and fairly composed at the back, we are lacking ideas and guile up front. We are predictable and not particularly worrisome for opponents. I’d like to see some different faces in the starting lineup and the ability for Schmidt to play higher up the field.

I think moving to a 4-2-3-1 is a good solution for the game against the Netherlands. No changes in goal or to the back four but add Kyle next to Scott as two holding mids and then play with Fleming on the left, Schmidt in the middle and Lawrence on the right. Sinclair would of course play up front. This frees Schmidt from some of the defensive responsibilities and puts her in a better position to service Sinclair in the attacking third. Fleming has to be given the chance to play. We are getting virtually nothing from Tancredi, Foligno and Leon and while she’s only 17, Fleming has vision and technical ability that could see her unlock the Dutch back four a few times. It’s time for that change if we want to (a) beat the Dutch and ensure first place in the group and (b) establish that we can maintain possession and create chances.

Another drab attacking performance means we limp into the second round in either second or third place. Not only do we face the prospect of a tougher opponent but we do so with diminished confidence if we persist with the same look for three games and end up with nothing but a converted penalty to show for it.

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A reality based preview of the Canadian Women’s World Cup team

This will not be like “Rise”. There will be no #HolySchmidts. No fawning, no talk of role models and inspiring the next generation of female players. This is about whether they can play and compete for a World Cup. I’ve always felt treating this team with kid gloves and giving them a pass on accountability is patronizing to them and to female athletes in general.

So who should play? Who should not play? What do they need to happen to be successful?

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Tactical adjustment thru technical refinement and decision making

[I already don’t like the title of this. Overly complicated when the theme is really that simple adjustments to familiar drills and games can help players recognize and solve problems]

My U13 team is doing very well this year. They are first place in league play and have succeeded with a short passing game in a 4-3-3. It’s a team of thinkers for the most part who have been encouraged to be confident and comfortable on the ball even in the defensive third. Because we got a lot of time with them in the spring to work on shape (it’s their first year playing 11 a side on a full sized field) and played a fair number of games against teams a level above them they were ready for the start of the regular season in September and were regularly winning by large margins against teams that still hadn’t adjusted to the bigger field.

Fast forward to last Saturday and we are playing a team that we’ve already played twice. Their approach was really intelligent. Having seen us play they had realized that while we were adept at playing through the thirds on the ground we still had players at the back who struggled a bit under pressure they played a 3-4-3 with a high, aggressive press. Despite the fact we actually went up 1-0 after 3 minutes and scored a second goal 10 minutes after that they stuck with the tactic and it caused us a lot of problems. 2-0 definitely flattered us as the high press with three forwards forced our defenders to try to find midfielders quickly and their four midfielders locked onto to our three with a great work ethic. We turned the ball over repeatedly in a 2o minute span and our keeper was forced to make an excellent save while it was still 1-0. Our forwards, not used to the lack of service to their feet reacted by becoming immobile for stretches which definitely didn’t help.

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UBC women’s soccer coaching job: a huge opportunity for right person

I’ll be honest. If I didn’t have the job that I have now, which I truly enjoy, I’d be interested in the UBC Women’s Head Coach job. Who wouldn’t? Any coach with a desire to step in and define a program would love this job given where it’s at and the potential that is building for a new era of success.

The other caveat, for any qualified candidate, would of course be that it would have to pay market value for the Vancouver area and UBC will struggle to do that on their budgets. So since the reality is that I’m happy where I am and the pay for the UBC job is simply not going to hit market value, I’m comfortable writing this as I won’t be a candidate.

This is a program that is seething with potential to take a huge step forward. There’s a perfect storm coalescing around the UBC Athletics department and the team itself. UBC have got to realize this and spend some time deliberating on how to attract top candidates to apply and then make sure they get the selection right. My suggestion to them is to make sure Mike Mosher, UBC Men’s Varsity Coach, is in on the interview and final decision and at least one other informed soccer person, preferably from the Whitecaps or CSA, for reasons that will soon be obvious, be involved as well.

Here’s why I think this is one of the most interesting soccer jobs that is going to come available in the next few years.

We go on about Vancouver being a world class city when it’s really on the periphery of that status. It’s a great place to live and is pretty to look at. Little else suggests world class but UBC is indeed a world class university. Highly regarded in North America, Europe and Asia, it draws students from everywhere and regularly lists in the top 50 when noted publications publish lists of the world’s best universities. So for starters, the new coach will be working at a highly credible institution that any prospective student who realizes that where they do their degree still matters will put in their plus column when picking a school they want to play soccer at.

Next, the construction for the new Whitecaps FC training facility has already begun at UBC. A new turf field to the north of Warren field is being constructed. This will be the new home of Varsity turf, currently located 100m to the east. Once Varsity has been relocated, the Whitecaps training facility will be built on the old site and will comprise about 120m x 120m of top notch grass to train on. It will be somewhat enclosed and while it is almost exclusively for the Whitecaps, the UBC Varsity teams will get some time on it.

The second part of the Whitecaps facility at UBC will be a building that will house their coaching staff’s offices, dressing rooms, physio and trainer rooms, etc. It’s quite likely UBC Athletics will also get some space in this building. Factor in that one of the lead architects on the job is Alex Percy, former UBC Varsity player (and pal of mine; we played centre back together for years at UBC), and you can ensure that player focused touches will feature in the final design.

All in all, this really will be one of, if not the, pre-eminent soccer training facilities in the country.

The missing piece of the puzzle, going back to when this venture was first announced by the Provincial government (the ones putting up the vast majority of the funding) and the Whitecaps is the presence of the Canadian Soccer Association and their teams. It’s gone quite quiet on that front but I was told at a recent meeting for stakeholders regarding the facility  that that is entirely between the Whitecaps and the CSA now.

Should a deal be struck you would have a great critical mass of people invested in soccer in general and should the women’s national team start using UBC as a base and the Whitecaps look to get involved again in women’s soccer in the form of an NWSL franchise you would have all the ingredients for the UBC women’s team coach to play a substantial role in amidst all this.

The days of the players on the women’s national team being precocious teenagers with cannons for legs is over. You just need to look at the average age of the current squad to see that most are on the back half of their 20’s.

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The above roster of the 22 players selected for the recent game against Germany is a bit fuzzy but all you need to know is 17 of those 22 are aged 22 or older. In other words, the vast majority are older than the average university graduate. In even more other words, a career in post-secondary soccer can still be used as a launch pad to the national team from a demographics point of view if the training and development aspect can be improved to the point that the coaches can get their teams back on CSA radar.

Quick segue to the UBC Swim team and their incredible success within CIS. Why does UBC Swimming do so well? The answer is coaches. Coaches that over the year through their own personal excellence as coaches and connections to the national swim team were able to establish UBC as the virtual home of the national swimming program for years at a time. That ensured that every top swimmer in the country either came to UBC or gave serious consideration to doing so. Establishing the UBC women’s soccer program as a similar hub for higher level opportunities within the sport would similarly be a massive recruiting tool for the team.

That’s what’s on the table in the coming years for whoever gets the job. A fabulous set of tools that can be used to mould opportunities to make the UBC Women’s Soccer Program the jewel of women’s post-secondary soccer and a launch pad to professional and national teams.

Being an outstanding coach is the prerequisite to the job. Definitely, But to leverage these tools the right candidate will have to have the people skills to be able to develop relationships, patiently, with the CSA and Whitecaps to increase the likelihood of the Whitecaps rebuilding their women’s program and the CSA setting up shop for not just the women’s national team but the U17 and U20 teams. They will need to be able to identify, develop and then be willing to share resources with these allies, provide opposition for them in controlled 11v11 scrimmages, exchange data on players, etc.

There is no other women’s soccer environment in the country outside of the national team program that can facilitate quality, almost daily, training than university soccer teams in this country. The knock has always been that the season is too short to be a serious development opportunity. That’s true and it would need to change. There is nothing in CIS rules that dictates what teams can and can’t do in the soccer off-season. While you do need to respect that student-athletes are students first and have course loads that can interfere with training at certain times of the year, it can be accommodated. The right program, that would work in harmony with Whitecaps women’s programming and CSA national teams would be a huge draw for the top graduating high school players. Huge enough to offset  scholarship offers from the States in some cases and in combination with Sport Canada funding and UBC scholarships be just as financially beneficial.

Players would benefit from the collective efforts of UBC Athletics and their renewed promise to provide the best available sport science resources to the teams they consider top tier. A strong relationship with the CSA and Whitecaps would help move the women’s soccer team towards that category. In the mean time the players still benefit from the resources and expertise that the Caps and CSA would bring to the table and the exposure from training at the same facilities.

So, prospective applicants, here’s a review that can serve as a cheat sheet for your interview:

  • Define a program; make it a destination as UBC Swimming has done. Stress the opportunities that are currently fomenting.
  • Use Whitecaps potential interest in NWSL and resurrected women’s programming in general to create opportunity to work together. This will help recruiting.
  • Get CSA to work with Whitecaps to ensure the facility is used by women’s national teams. Further that relationship with CSA if it happens. Again, this will help recruiting.
  • Extend CIS season to make UBC women’s soccer a true development environment for those with aspirations to play at a higher levels

With the mess that was the last hiring procedure for this position you can be sure that this one will be under many microscopes. My hope is that the hiring committee has several people who understand women’s soccer in this country and where it’s currently at (ie. a crossroads, as other countries catch up to us) and that they understand what a top soccer coach actually does. This program needs to get the right person and give them remuneration that will keep them there for the three to five years it will take to build the program into a true force that will be very hard to compete with thereafter.

To do that in this city means they will have to offer real money. Unfortunately that is unlikely and as most of us live in financial realities that preclude taking pay large pay cuts in our prime earning years, it will be a difficult task finding the person who can take on what is both a great opportunity at a great institution and an onerous task for a good five years on modest remuneration.

Good luck to all who apply and a sincere wish that this program gets the coach it deserves to take it to the levels I’ve described.

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Our World Cup Trip: Fortaleza, Brasilia and Rio (Part 2 of 2)

So while I did say in Part 1 that being a victim of violent crime wasn’t my biggest concern on the trip, I was still aware that some of the places we were going were not exactly Shangri-la. Namely Fortaleza. We flew out of Salvador after the Germany v Portugal drubbing and arrived in Fortaleza just before midnight. To put this in perspective, the city of Vancouver had 6 murders in 2013. Fortaleza had 2754. It was the seventh most murderous city, per capita in the world last year and we had ten days there.

Fortaleza had been a challenge to find accommodations but in the end we got an absolutely primo place in a modern apartment building right across from the FIFA Fan Fest zone which is right on the beach. A two bedroom with full kitchen and decks overlooking the ocean. Dealing with the property manager was another exercise in trust. He spoke almost no English but seemed to think he was fluent. He also knew we spoke no Portuguese but spoke to us in his native tongue like we were. We would get emails from him when we were finalizing the details that said things like, “OK, the tires are pumped. Send me money.” This place was costing us over CDN$5000 for the ten days. I think. Because with the variety of deposits, cleaning fees and electricity usage fee I lost the ability and will to tabulate and left it with Markus who was lead guy on this booking. So we fire off about $3000 as a deposit via Western Union while every Craigslist rip off horror story comes back to our minds and mocks us. We just sent $3000 to a guy in Murder City, Brazil who says he has a gorgeous apartment for us but speaks virtually no English. Markus couldn’t get a reply from him for about five days when he tried to get confirmation he’d received the money. In the end he got some gibberish that we optimistically took as “Yep, all good.”

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Clockwise from top left: Street party the night before Mexico v Brazil in Fortaleza, Fan Fest Zone during Mexico v Brazil as seen from our apartment, Colin on walk in to the stadium in Fortaleza, Apartment Schin-fest.

So now after texting him to let him know we’d be there around midnight and we really wanted to make sure he was going to be there to let us in, we got ambiguous replies and the murmurs started in the cab, “This guy better be there. Those tires better be pumped!”

As you walk up to the reception desk you are fully at the point where the rather slow, plodding road called “I don’t have a good feeling about this.” merges onto the highway of “You’re an idiot. you gave some guy $3000 and think he’s going to be here with a key.” All faith is gone and you are soon scampering onto the Boulevard of Broken Dreams and Accompanying Recriminations “Whose idea was it to send all that money to this guy?!”

But a few words at reception followed by a phone call and minutes later Luis comes down the elevator and greets us like old friends. We go up to the apartment and he jabbers at us in Portuguese looking up every 30 seconds to check we understood. He pulls out a wad of cash and give us about R$1200 (CDN $600). No idea why at first but we figured part of the deposit we paid was just to ensure we showed up and he gave us that back. Brilliant. He even met us at 4:30am when we were leaving Fortaleza on an early morning flight to give us the remainder of our deposit back. Total straight shooter as almost every Brazilian we met was. If you’re ever going to Fortaleza let me know and I’ll hook you up with Luis. You’ll probably get the same apartment we had for 20% of what we paid.

Before he left Luiz pointed out the window to a very big cruise ship docked in the harbour. “Mexicans. 3000.” he said. Turns out a smart tour operator saw that Mexico’s three round robin games were all on the coast not far from each other in Natal, Fortaleza and Recife and arranged a World Cup cruise for Mexicans. They were now docked in Fortaleza for the highlight of their World Cup: a game against Brazil the next day.

Colin went to bed but Markus and I hit the streets. To say it was a massive street party is like saying Arjen Robben is a bit fast. Mexican fans were easily the most insane we met. As you are allowed to drink on the street and every five steps sees someone with a cardboard cooler offering you ridiculously cheap beer while portable bars with a full range of spirits ambled by every few minutes, you could say it was a bit out of control. Mexicans had a very simple drinking game. They tilted your head back and poured bottles of hard booze down your throat from a few inches away while they counted. They usually got to six or seven before the drinker pulled away. Mayhem. Groups of 20, 50 or more singing their songs, dancing with each other wherever there was music.

There was a 4-5 km promenade along the beach in Fortaleza. This is where all the nice restaurants and bars were as well as the nice hotels and apartments. It was the only place you wanted to be in Fortaleza and owing to the hundreds upon hundreds of police, riot police and military there, out in force, 24 hours per day, it felt pretty safe. In our ten days in Fortaleza we saw every conceivable crowd control tool of the trade from military ships in the harbour to surveillance drones buzzing the beach to billy clubs, pepper spray, riot shields, and just about every type of police and military vehicle you can imagine. Even just one block off the beach in some places and the vibe changed considerably. We stuck to the beach, the fan zone and the bars and restaurants around our apartment. Every night was some degree of a street party but that first night, the eve of a Brazil v Mexico game, was something special.

As Colin was still unsure if he’d get his tickets back he wanted to try get tickets for Brazil v Mexico. Markus and I were into it too but as I’d had issues with Visa (couldn’t get cash withdrawals and bank debit cards don’t work in Brazil unless they’re associated with Visa or Mastercard) I didn’t want to run down my cash reserves until I had it sorted. So while I gave them an earful on the phone the next day about how when you call to tell them you’re going on holiday so they don’t put a stop on your card you get an automated message saying that’s now unnecessary due to their super duper fraud detection software… I ended up passing on a pair of tickets offered at $500 each. Colin and Markus ended up right behind a goal in the mix with Mexican fans. Super tense atmosphere between the Brazilians and Mexicans but when Ochoa pulled off the game of a lifetime to give Mexico a 0-0 draw both fans seemed okay with it as it gave them each four points after two games.

Meanwhile, I opted to head back to the apartment to catch the game on TV. While there were hordes of official FIFA buses and cabs getting to the stadium. Very few were heading back as the buses waited in a staging area, hundreds of them, to pick up fans after the game and return them to the beach area. That was another thing that worked really well. In Salvador and Fortaleza they either had free or very inexpensive express buses for ticket holders that took you from popular, central locations to the stadium.

So with them all parked that meant I had to patch together a way home and while a volunteer in a bus staging area was trying to be helpful, I ended up on a bus that took me way far from where I wanted and dumped me . No one seemed to speak English and I had no idea if I was somewhere harmless or somewhere that I stood out as prey.

We took more cabs in 20 days in Brazil than I’ve taken in the past few years in Vancouver. They were everywhere and really cheap. Probably never had to wait more than 3o seconds to grab one but now, on my own, half lost it seemed to take forever to hail one and sticking your arm up in the air and yelling for a cab isn’t the best way to remain inconspicuous. But again, concerns were for naught. I eventually got a cab and got back to see the second half of the game.

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Clockwise from top left: Street vendors selling kit in the middle of the street, signs for the Brazil v Mexico game, our apartment building, me at the Germany v Ghana game. All in Fortaleza.

Fortaleza was really the holiday part of the trip. Lots of downtime. We arrive on Monday and I didn’t see a game until Saturday so it was lots of fun, relaxation and awful Brazilian beer. It took us until halfway through our stay to find something drinkable. After going through Brahma, Schin and some other bollocks-water that I’ve managed to purge from my memory, we discovered Bohemians. Totally drinkable.

For the Germany v Ghana game we had front row seats. Sounds great but being so low down we were in direct sunlight for about an hour and it was well over 30 degrees. That does not go over well with my cheap Scottish skin. Also, it’s just really not a great vantage point to watch a game, especially since were only about six yards off the goal line. We left feeling it was a decent game and were happy to see Klose notch the record tying goal for most career World Cup goals but it wasn’t really until I got home, heard people rave about what a great game it was that I watched it and realized it was much better than we’d thought. Still, great night out.

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Clockwise from top left: Us outside the stadium before the Germany v Ghana game, getting some street food (chicken skewers) after the Ivory Coast v Greece game, in the crowd at the Fan Fest during the Brazil v Cameroon game, locals offer rides on souped-up bikes to save you the 5k walk from the perimeter to the stadium. All in Fortaleza.

A few more sun-drenched days on the beach including another round of Brazilian beach soccer and circle keep ups, painfully written about on my MMCB World Cup Tumblr using my iPhone, and then it was back to the stadium for Ivory Coast v Greece. Great seats again, about 10 rows up on the edge of the box meant getting to see Drogba and Toure up close. Toure was a shadow of his Premier League season owing to the death of his brother just before the tournament started. His mind was clearly not on the World Cup. Check out where he is when Ivory Coast conceded the penalty in the last minute. Furthest up the field and walking. Not where you want your holding mid to be when protecting the result that will put you through to the second round.

This was also about the time that we saw our only World Cup protest. It was actually only clear there was a protest due to the overwhelming riot police presence that mustered at the edge of the Fan Fest. They aligned themselves across the road to make sure the protesters could not get past them to the Fan Fest and instead would be pushed left up a road that took them away from the crowded promenade area. It looked pretty serious. In the end it was a one vehicle, one megaphone protest (Brazilian Communist Party). They packed it in after half an hour. Zero confrontation with riot cops.

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Somewhere at the start of these lazy Fortaleza days, Colin had managed to get FIFA to listen and they told him if he brought his police report in they’d play ball. Because most of the stolen tickets were actually on my account, I had to accompany him on a trip into the loopy bureaucracy of FIFA. We were initially told to go to the wrong place so after a second death-cab ride we were in what seemed to be a shopping mall where FIFA was basing one of its ticketing centres. We were shuffled, albeit quickly, between rooms and ended off in their “Troubleshooting Room” tucked away out of site and earshot. We got lucky and beat a mini rush that came in after us so our wait was again minimal to see someone. There was a lot of back and forth and a few people came in to ask questions before they then just casually agreed to print new tickets. Awesome!

“Okay, what are the seat numbers of the stolen tickets?”

Well, don’t you know? We didn’t write them down. Surely, since FIFA assigned the seats and sent them to us you have a record of that in my account.

“No. We can’t see the seat numbers until they are printed out.”

We looked at each a bit stunned while the FIFA reps got a bit sheepish. This led to a quick call to Markus to read out the seat numbers on his tickets and mine for the remaining games and by deduction and trial and error we were able to figure out which were Colin’s. The process made no sense to us but Colin was going to get his tickets so it didn’t really seem like a good idea to mock their process.

So having forked out for the Brazil v Mexico game and the Opening Game, in the end Colin got to see nine games, including two with Brazil. Markus and I saw eight (he missed out on the Opening Game). We wouldn’t have guessed that would be the case in the stadium in SP.

Luis met us at the agreed 4:30am and transparently calculated what he owed us from our remaining deposit. Then off to the airport for an early flight to Brasilia where we arrived and checked in to a nicely updated airport strip hotel and had breakfast before heading to Garrincha National Stadium for the Portugal v Ghana game. Nice that they named the national stadium after Garrincha in the capital city but this is a city where the teams that play there draw about 1000 fans. Garrincha Stadium holds over 70 000. Another World Cup white elephant. US$900 000 000 to update and increase capacity from 45 000.

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Portugal v Ghana was the strangest game we saw. Ronaldo missed three sitters and had an audacious chip hit the crossbar from a very wide position. Ghana looked looked half interested at best despite not being mathematically eliminated and with the USA going down a goal to Germany in the second half, Portugal just needed the Ronaldo chances to go in to make up the three goal deficit. Wasn’t to be. Ronaldo was not just clearly injured through the tournament but determined to make it clear to everyone he was playing hurt. He opted to walk at odd moments in the game and looked frustrated at every opportunity.

Back to the hotel for a full buffet dinner then to bed so we could be up for another early flight. This time to Rio.

On the one hand it seemed a bit childish to be disappointed that although we got tickets for eleven games via the FIFA ticket lottery that we weren’t satisfied and wanted to get a game in Rio. But on the other hand it seemed insane to go all the way to Brazil, go to four cities and not see Rio. The problem of course was that everyone wanted to see games in Rio at the Maracana. You’re at a World Cup. In Brazil. Of course you have to try to see a game at the Maracana!

Prices for the second round game though were coming in around $1000 online. Too steep. Fortunately, I talked to a friend at my club who was on very good terms with a ticket broker who owed him a favour. Bam. Three tickets for $400 a pop. Outstanding! Even though this was considerably more than the $175 we paid direct to FIFA for Category 1 tickets, it ended up being the best investment I’ve ever made on a sports ticket.

Leaving Brasilia was a pleasure. Just a spread out, manufactured city designed for government and not much else. Meanwhile, our descent into Rio’s city airport was spectacular.

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Top: Sugarloaf Mountain. Bottom: Maracana Stadium. Both as seen from the plane.
 

We hit the ground running, dumping our bags at the hotel and heading for Sugar Loaf mountain. A full two hour lineup in the hot sun was made worthwhile when we got up top on the gondola.

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Top: Sugarloaf mountain, getting ready to load onto the second gondola that takes you to the very top.
Bottom: View from the top of Sugarloaf mountain

The Fan Fest Zone was at Copacabana Beach and while we thought the set up in Fortaleza was pretty cool, it was little a small scale model of what it was like at Copacabana. The beach is a real stunner and the Fan Fest was at least double, probably triple the size of what we’d been hanging out at in Fortaleza.

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Top left: Our local bar in Rio. Awesome. Bucket of beers on the table each time within a minute of sitting down. Top right: View from our seat on the bar patio. That’s the Municipal Theatre. 2nd row left: Colin descending to the Metro to get to the game. 2nd row right: Copacabana Beach. 3rd row: “Dutch” playing “Brazil” on Copacabana Beach. Bottom row: me holding my ticket for the game outside the Maracana in my recently purchase Zico tshirt. Mission complete.
 

Our hotel was equidistant from Copacabana Beach and the Maracana, located in the financial district just minutes from Santos Dumont Airport where we landed. We found a bar/restaurant along a beautiful cobblestone boulevard and spent almost as much time there in our three days as we did in our overpriced hotel room around the corner.

The game we saw in Rio deserves its own story. When we got the tickets we’d been hoping for an England v Colombia game at the Maracana. England fans bring the atmosphere and we knew Colombia would be a decent side to see. Plus we’d already seen Ivory Coast v Greece from their group. In the end, we got Colombia v Uruguay and it was easily the most memorable game of the trip.

This was the only game where we didn’t have Class A (best) seats. We were behind the goal towards the corner of the field. Not optimal viewing but it put us in amongst thousands of diehard fans. Most of the games we saw had decent atmosphere but nothing chaotic. Nothing approaching over the top zeal or danger. Uruguay v Colombia had all of that and you felt that had there been one controversial call that swayed the result it would have got really ugly in a hurry.

Colombia fans outnumbered Uruguay fans by 4:1 in both bodies and probably blood alcohol level. The Colombians were confident and jubilant right from the start. The Uruguayans were pissed off and easily wound up. Luis Suarez had just been suspended for the rest of the tournament and Uruguay fans were convinced it was a conspiracy to reduce the likelihood of Uruguay advancing past Colombia to the quarter finals where they would have played Brazil. They were sure Brazil were pulling string to ensure there would be no repeat of the Uruguay victory over Brazil the last time the World Cup was played in Brazil in 1950.

So we were in amongst a patchwork of Colombia and Uruguay fans behind the goal. It was mainly Colombian yellow with bits of pale Uruguayan blue. Surprising in that there were clearly blocks for each set of fans but they were all small and butted up against other blocks that had opposing fans. It just made a hostile environment even worse when Colombian fans would launch into songs about Suarez that were obviously really insulting and Uruguay fans would rise to the bait and stand and start yelling at the Colombians who were always just metres away. It was a long night’s work for the stewards and riot police who were constantly having to wade in to separate fans and occasionally haul one away. We saw more police/fan interactions in the Maracana than we saw our entire ten day stay in Fortaleza.

And yes, we were behind the goal that James Rodriguez scored into with that volley. We thought we’d seen the best goal two weeks earlier when van Persie headed past Casillas but even now I’m not sure which one was better. But we were there and we yelled and we laughed our asses off and how spectacular it was. And the Colombians…they did all that and they cried and they sang and they rubbed the Uruguayans’ noses in it as much as they could. What a night.

IMG_4589I have a bunch of pictures from the Colombia v Uruguay game at the Maracana. None do it justice.
 

So now it was back to Brasilia for our last game and after the Maracana it did feel a bit anti-climactic. I was charged with getting a hotel in Brasilia (boring, boring place by the way. Doesn’t feel like you’re even in Brazil). Brasilia had been the weirdest place to get accommodation. Online hotel sites had very little on offer and what was available was ridiculous. Like $8000/night ridiculous. For whatever reason, prices returned to sanity once we were down there and I decided we all deserved our own room for our last night and got us a place a short walk from the stadium. Arrived late at night and again opted for a very nice buffet. Highlight of the night: meeting Kanu. He was with the official Nigerian delegation who were also staying in the hotel. After seeing him at a distance in the restaurant, I ended up face to face with him in a cramped elevator. It led to this awkward chat.

Me: Ah, you’re Kanu.

Kanu: Yes. I am.

Me: Wow.

Awkward silence.

Markus jumps in with the game saving “Well, good luck in the game tomorrow against France. We’ll be there.”

And then the elevator doors open and that was it.

We had nosebleeds for France v Nigeria but it’s one of those stadiums where the seats are stacked with verticality in mind so despite being high it felt like we weren’t far from the field. France eventually got the result they deserved but it was all a bit melancholy for us as it was the last day and we were happy for a mellow game knowing we were heading to the airport soon after the game.

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Top left: Kanu!; top right: French fans on their way into the stadium for France v Nigeria
Middle: Colin, Markus and I at the France v Nigeria game
Bottom left; there were four of these guys. They came all the way from New Zealand. They wore these costumes (Minny Mouse) because they were the only ones they could find that they could get four of and that fit. They arrived five minutes into the game, left ten minutes before the end of the first half so they could mingle and let people get their pictures taken with them, and then missed a good 15 minutes of the second half before they got back to their seats. There’s too much of this at the World Cup. It’s stupid. Photo description editorial over. Bottom right: the last shot. Leaving Garrincha Stadium and off to the airport to come home.
 

And then that was it. Overnight into Atlanta for Colin and I before taking different routes the rest of the way while Markus set off to SP to go home via Toronto. There’s really no other way to wrap this up other than to once again express that I know I was very fortunate to be able to do this and do it with good friends who appreciated the trip as much as I did. I have a very understanding, supportive wife who when I told her this was likely going to happen a couple years back said, “Yeah, I get it. World Cup. Brazil. You gotta go.” That was of course before it turned into a three week, eight game dash around Brazil but her support never really wavered so it’s another reason I’m lucky to be with her.

And lastly, as I said in the first part of this story, if you have even a tiny bit of you that says, “That looks great, I should do a trip like that one day.” Do it. Save the money, find the time, coerce friends that you will enjoy doing it with and go. It’ll be worth it. The 2016 Euro in France awaits…

Posted in 2014 World Cup | Tagged , , | 5 Comments