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2014 FIFA World Cup Soccer Fitness Preview: Iran – A Lesson in Soccernomics

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Because this is a World Cup year, I have decided to countdown to the tournament by providing a short soccer/fitness related preview of each of the 32 participating nations. In this installment, I will look at Iran, one of the strongest teams in Asia, who have drawn a tough group that includes Nigeria, Argentina, and Bosnia-Herzegovina.  The Iranian team will play their first match against Nigeria on June 15th.

Iran is a very unique nation when it comes to soccer.  They are a large (population of over 76 million people) wealthy country (primarily because of large amounts of oil), with a history of success in Asia (they have won the Asian Football Confederation’s Asian Cup 3 times, and placed 3rd another 3 times).  Iran also has a very experienced coach, in the Portuguese Carlos Queiroz, whose last World Cup coaching job saw him lead his native Portugal into the round of 16 at South Africa in 2010, where they lost only 1-0 to eventual winners Spain.  In spite of all of these positive factors, however, Iran heads into the 2014 World Cup in Brazil as huge underdogs.  Queiroz has even admitted to fifa.com that qualification for the round of 16 seems like “an unrealistic dream.” 

In their 2009 book Soccernomics, Simon Kuper ( a renowned soccer journalist) and Stefan Syzmanski (an international economist) used insights and analogies from economics, statistics, psychology, and business, to explain the 3 main factors that can be used to predict a country’s chances of success in international soccer.  These factors are:

  1. Population (how large the country is)
  2. Gross Domestic Produce (GDP; or how strong the country’s economy is)
  3. Soccer experience (how long the country has played the game and how large their national professional league is)

The authors of Soccernomics were able to use these factors to explain why countries like Brazil and Germany win so often, and conversely, why England loses more often than not.  Using these same metrics on Iran might lead believers of Soccernomics to conclude that the country could be poised to become one of the world’s next soccer superpowers.  After all, Iran has a large population, they are a wealthy country, and they have a lot of soccer experience, having begun playing international matches as early as 1941.  The authors of the book themselves predicted Iraq and Turkey (two countries that neighbor Iran, and like Iran have large populations and abundant natural resources) to become future World Cup winners. 

Unfortunately, due to recent economic sanctions placed against the country, Iran presently does not have access to the global banking system, meaning their sports teams (including their soccer team) do not have access to adequate funding required for training and other preparation.  As recently as September of 2013, Iran had to cancel a scheduled training camp in Portugal due to lack of funds.  The Iranian professional league has also suffered in recent years, both from lack of money and corruption, and as a result several of Iran’s top players frequently travel to Euorpe to play professionally there.   Here are some other notable quotes from Queiroz that were recently made to fifa.com about Iran’s soccer problems:

  • “We lost six months. I hope we will be able to find a solution.” (referring to the canceled camp in Portugal)
  • “In a conservative society like Iran, it is not easy to talk about reform and change of habits. It is not easy in Iran, not easy in other parts of the world.” (referring to the skepticism he received from critics, when trying to bring internationally-based players into the Iranian team)
  • “We cannot be competitive without international experience. The only thing here similar to professional football is that at the end of the month, players get their salary.” (referring to the lack of standards in Iran’s professional league)
  • “With its potential, imagine what Iran could achieve if it had the resources of Qatar.” (referring to the lack of funding) 

Looking at this information through the lens of Soccernomics, it seems as though the Iranian team cannot reach its true potential until their aforementioned problems with funding and corruption are resolved.  The coach, and the team, however, have remained positive and optimistic about the future, despite their recent set-backs.  “My commitment to Iranians is to make them happy,” Queiroz has said. “This is our World Cup, this is our time to tell the world that Iran is a football country.”  Can the Iranians rise above their underdog status and achieve their “unrealistic dream” in Brazil?  We will have to wait and see what happens in 1 month’s time.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this topic.  Drop me a line here to get the conversation started.  

 

 

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2014 FIFA World Cup Soccer Fitness Preview: Bosnia-Herzegovina – The Famous Nephew of an Even More Famous Uncle

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Because this is a World Cup year, I have decided to countdown to the tournament by providing a short soccer/fitness related preview of each of the 32 participating nations. In this installment, I will look at Bosnia-Herzegovina, an emerging European nation that finished first in their qualifying group (ahead of Greece) and have drawn a group that includes Nigeria, Argentina, and Iran.  Bosnia-Herzegovina play their first match against South American favorites Argentina on June 15th.

One unique aspect of the Bosnia-Herzegovina team is that their coach, former Yugoslavian star player Safet Susic, is the uncle of one of the current team’s young stars in Tino-Sven Susic.  The younger Susic has an interesting back story, having fled his native Yugoslavia in the early 1990’s (because of the war happening at the time), he grew up in Belgium and starred in their youth National teams as a U17 and U20 player.  He also holds Croatian citizenship, and plays for one of the top Croatian clubs Hadjuk Split, so he could have opted to play for Belgium or Croatia instead of Bosnia-Herzegovina.  In the end he chose to play for the country where he grew up and where his family’s roots are.

Tino-Sven is not the first World Cup player to be coached by a family member.  Some notable recent examples include Italian star Paolo Maldini, who was coached by his father Cesare in France in 1998, and Michael Bradley of the USA, who was coached by his father Bob in South Africa in 2010.  Sometimes the father-son (or uncle-nephew) coach-payer relationship can put a lot of pressure on the player to live up to higher expectations of media and fans, who may feel that the player’s selection was not based on merit but rather on family loyalty or bias.  In the case of Tino-Sven, there is also the added pressure that his uncle is not only his coach, but is also a former star player for Yugoslavia who was and still is very popular with Bosnian fans.  Furthermore, Tino-Sven’s father, Sead Susic, is another renowned former Yugoslavian star player, so the player is certainly entering the World Cup with a lot to prove. 

The young Susic has handled this pressure in the right way, focusing the attention of the media on the fact that he has earned his place in the team, and vowing to prove it at the World Cup.  He recently told fifa.com:

“Being a Susic is not easy  I have to prove that I’m in the side not because of my name or my uncle but because of the work I’ve done. I’ve learned to live with that. Some people think I’ve had a few strings pulled for me, but I don’t see it that way at all and I’m going to do everything I can on the pitch to show that.”

For Bosnia-Herzegovina to be successful in a tough group that includes one of the top teams from each of South America, Africa, and Asia, they will need all players including Tino-Sven Susic to rise above the pressure and perform to the best of their abilities.  We will have to wait and see what happens in 1 month’s time.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this topic.  Drop me a line here to get the conversation started. 

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2014 FIFA World Cup Soccer Fitness Preview: Argentina – Maradona vs. Messi and the 10,000 Hour Rule in Action

Because this is a World Cup year, I have decided to countdown to the tournament by providing a short soccer/fitness related preview of each of the 32 participating nations. In this installment, I will look at Argentina, 2-time World Cup champions, who finished first in their CONMEBOL (South American) qualification tournament. Argentina have drawn in a group that includes Nigeria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Iran, and they play their first match against Bosnia-Herzegovina on June 15th.

Much of the media coverage of the Argentinian National team in the past 8 years has centred around Leo Messi, the star of the team and generally considered one of the best and most talented players in the world. Messi is frequently compared to another Argentinian star from 30 years ago, Diego Maradona, who some soccer fans and critics still consider to be the greatest player of all time (the attached video shows a great comparison of the two players’ best highlights). Messi and Maradona have much more in common than just being star players for the Argentinian team; they are physically similar (short in stature but exceptionally fast and agile); they have the same unique skill set (including world class dribbling, passing and ball striking ability); and they even play in the same position (striker/attacking midfielder) and wear the same number (10) on the pitch.

One other attribute shared by both Messi and Maradona (and the main reason they developed into the players they are) is the amount of time they spent practicing and training as youth players. In Maradona’s autobiography (“Maradona”) he discusses spending “5-6 hours per day playing on the streets with los cebolitos” (his youth team). Similarly, Messi has spoken in several different interviews about how he practiced (and still practices) every day, for hours at a time. All of these hours have, over time, accumulated to over 10,000 total practice hours, which several leading authors and sports science researchers have suggested is the threshold number of practice hours required to become an expert in a given field, including sports.

The one accolade that has eluded Messi thus far in his career has been the title of World Cup Champion (his counterpart, Maradona, was the key player in Argentina’s last World Cup triumph in 1986). This year, with the team playing close to home on South American soil, could be the year that Messi’s 10,000 hours of dedicated practice finally pay off at the World Cup. We will have to wait and see what happens in 1 month’s time.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this topic. Drop me a line here to get the conversation started.

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2014 FIFA World Cup Soccer Fitness Preview: Ecuador – Beating the Heat

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Because this is a World Cup year, I have decided to countdown to the tournament by providing a short soccer/fitness related preview of each of the 32 participating nations. In this installment, I will look at Ecuador, the emerging South American nation that finished in 4th place (ahead of previous 2010 World Cup semi-finalists Uruguay) in the 2014 CONMEBOL World Cup qualification tournament.   Ecuador are drawn in a group that includes Switzerland, France, and Honduras, and they play their first match against Switzerland on June 15th.

Ecuador is located on the northwestern coast of South America, and the country is aptly named, as it is literally bisected by the Earth’s equator.  Because of its geographic location, Ecuador enjoys 12 hours per day of sunlight, 365 days per year.  With average temperatures of over 25 degrees Celsius, the Ecuadorian players are some of the most experienced in the world at training and playing in the heat.  This experience could prove vital for them at the World Cup in Brazil, a country which also covers the equator and is home to very warm temperatures year-round.

When I worked as Fitness Coach with the Canadian Women’s National U17 team, we competed in training camps in very warm climates (California, Florida, Mexico, Costa Rica) and our qualification tournament for the 2012 Women’s U17 World Cup was held in Guatemala in the middle of May.  Temperatures during the 10-day tournament reached over 35 degrees Celsius, and we played all of our games on a turf field that was typically burning hot by the time we reached our 4:30pm kick-off times.  The Medical team and I took several measures to ensure that our players were able to cope with the heat in Guatemala.  Among them was a simple trick taught to me by a family member who had competed in triathlons in the heat: having the players grab ice cubes in each hand and hold them until they melt.  Of all of our body parts, we contain some of the most sensitive skin receptors to temperature changes in our hands (if you have ever accidentally touched a burning hot stove, you can probably relate to this).  The same goes with cold temperatures.  As a result, holding something cold in the hands can have a profound cooling effect on the entire body.  In a sport like soccer, the “ice cubes in the hands” cooling technique works best during half time, as it can take 5-10 minutes for the ice to melt completely.  We noticed a big difference in the players’ performances in the second half after having cooled off with the ice.

As mentioned previously, the Ecuadorians should be very accustomed to training and playing in the heat, and they may also be very accustomed to cooling strategies like the one discussed in this article.  Their group (group E) includes 2 teams from western Europe (France and Switzerland) that will be far less comfortable training and playing in the South American heat.  Can Ecuador’s experience dealing with warm temperatures help them to get out of group E and into the next round in Brazil?  We will have to wait and see what happens in 1 month’s time.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this topic.  Drop me a line here to get the conversation started.   

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2014 FIFA World Cup Soccer Fitness Preview: Honduras – The Comeback Kings

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Because this is a World Cup year, I have decided to countdown to the tournament by providing a short soccer/fitness related preview of each of the 32 participating nations. In this installment, I will look at Honduras, a small Central American nation that qualified at the expense of my native Canada, among others in the CONCACAF region.   Honduras are drawn in a group that includes Switzerland, France, and Ecuador, and they play their first match against France on June 15th.

The Hondurans had a tough route to qualification for the World Cup.  In the final stage of the CONCACAF qualification tournament, called the “hexagonal” because it includes six teams, Honduras started brightly by beating the United States 2-1.  Next came the first of their 2 matches against rivals Mexico (the 2nd game against the Mexicans would prove to be pivotal for Honduras’ qualification hopes).  They fell behind 2-0 before half time, but fought back hard with 2 second half goals, to earn a 2-2 draw and a valuable point.  Later on in qualification, Honduras had a streak of bad luck playing away from home, losing to Panama (2-0), Costa Rica (1-0) and the United States (1-0).  Following these defeats, they traveled to Mexico City, to play Mexico in the famous Azteca Stadium, a venue which is notoriously difficult for away teams both because of the huge crowds (over 115,000 people), altitude (2400 metres above sea level) and pollution.  Honduras fell behind again, 1-0, before rallying to score 2 goals and win the game 2-1.  5 points from their final 3 games (against Panama, Costa Rica, and Jamaica) were enough to see them through, ahead of Mexico in the table with 15 points to Mexico’s 11.

Honduras’ 2 come-from-behind wins against the Mexicans represent a critical strength of their National team.   Statistically at the World Cup, teams who concede the first goal are 40% more likely to lose the game.  If the goal deficit then moves to 2 goals (as it did in Honduras’ first qualification match against Mexico) the probability of losing goes up to 67%.  Thus Honduras, who came back from both 1-0 and 2-0 deficits, have proven themselves to be a formidable threat regardless of how they start the game.  With group matches against tough European opponents France and Switzerland, plus a strong South American side in Ecuador, the Hondurans may find themselves behind and having to come back again.  We will have to wait and see what happens in 1 month’s time.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this topic.  Drop me a line here to get the conversation started.