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Jul. 12 2010 — 11:57 am | 204 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments

World Cup: Que Sera, Sera

A good friend of mine—a full-fledged Man of Sport, though only a Man of Football because I intermittently force him to be—made this observation after yesterday’s match: “I was disappointed not to see more World Cup, but I was mostly disappointed by the World Cup I did see.”

And, you know, that captures something essential about both this event and football itself. I think the World Cup only really works if you go for full immersion—abandon yourself to the whole thing, watch every match you can, even group stage third fixtures between geopolitical nonentities, and eventually you will be rewarded. Perhaps not by every match or any particular match, but by the whole experience.

I have been a conscious member of the global TV audience for six World Cups, and each one encapsulated a particular summer in a particular era of my life. In 1990, I barely knew what was going on, but I liked it. In 1998, I was drinking way too much cheap beer and living with eight other dudes in a converted (there’s an understatement) nunnery. In 2002, I was living with my girlfriend in Portland, waking up at all hours and rampaging on email with all my soccer friends during the work day. In 2010, that girlfriend and I are married and we’re systematically indoctrinating our helpless child to the point that he insisted on staging a full re-enactment of a pre-match ceremony the other day, complete with national anthems and handshakes.

My point is that a given World Cup lives on not because of specific matches, but because of the whole vibe of following the tournament, match in and match out, for a month. Certainly, if you were looking for all-time performances out of this tournament’s big names, they offered very few. Most of the “headliner” matches, including yesterday’s sour and small-hearted final, turned out to be pretty lame. Portugal v Ivory Coast? Both teams should have been summarily kicked out of the tournament. Germany v England; Germany v Argentina; Germany v Spain? All proto-classics on paper, but complete washouts (entertaining in their own way) because one side or the other failed to attend. Yesterday, Spain and the Netherlands put on a 120-minute display that felt designed to demonstrate why major soccer leagues (as opposed to Major League Soccer) don’t use playoff systems to determine their champions.

On the other hand, some matches that excited no one when they appeared on the fixture list were absolutely cracking. I would include all four matches played by our ever-embattled USA on that list—every one, a demonstration of football in extremis. No one outside of Auckland and Wellington marked their calendars for any of the New Zealand matches, but the heroic, semi-professional All-Whites staged a handful of the Cup’s most riveting moments. Slovakia v Italy, any one? Mexico v France? Australia v Serbia turned into a madcap track meet—one of the most fun matches I watched through the entire tournament. Who knew Uruguay would be so entertaining and compelling? Meanwhile, Brazil bored the life out of me every time they played—except in the North Korea match, when the Thousand Mile Horse managed to discomfit the Brazilians for a few gloriously weird minutes.

What the Cup does in microcosm, football does at large. It is the one major sport that raises more questions than it answers, and instills a fatalistic world view in just about all of its followers. Soccer says, what will be, will be—and we have no idea what that is, so you may as well have a Campari and soda and try to enjoy this 0 : 0 stalemate while you still have breath in your lungs. For better or worse, it’s hard to just drop in on soccer, because you’re likely to visit when Nigel De Jong is playing. To really understand the family, you have to crash on the couch forever.

And so it ends—badly, but fittingly, with victory by Spain, the one team in world football that imposes a comprehensive vision on every single match it plays. Like Spain’s style or hate it, right now everyone else is just reacting. As for the Netherlands—I mean, c’mon, dudes. This whining about the referees is just about the last straw. You played a shitty little match and were lucky not to have three players sent off. You trusted to luck and venom, and they served you well, until they didn’t. Take it with some dignity. What will be, will be.



Jul. 11 2010 — 11:30 am | 227 views | 0 recommendations | 3 comments

World Cup: Era, Or Accident?

The 2006 World Cup final left behind very little except for the headbutt. Zinedine Zidane’s baffling last act as a player overshadowed the result, and a penalty-kick winner always feels like a co-champion, not a conqueror. In any case, Italy was a weak champion. Oh, a tough, clever, talented side, no doubt—but no one really wanted to play like them. With just about everyone playing in Serie A, they did not have a style or philosophy to export. The squad went stale almost instantaneously, and by Euro 2008, it was obvious that the Italian moment was just a moment. The next great Italian side, Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan, fields very few actual Italians.

Instead of inaugurating an era, the 2006 final ended one: the Zidane/Ronaldo Era, in which the French midfield genius and the mercurial Brazilian forward defined, between them, three consecutive World Cups. One of the questions hovering over today’s meeting between Spain and the Netherlands is whether the result will crown an era or feel like just a bit of an accident.

If Spain wins, then we will be experiencing the Era of Tiki-Taka, the short-passing, possession-oriented style that la Furia used to win the 2008 Euros and that, with minor variations, Barcelona used to win everything they contested in 2009. (The Spanish national team is basically just a subset of Barcelona at this point.) It may not be as radical or have a cool name like Total Football, and I don’t know if it has the spooky cultural relevance of catenaccio. But tiki-taka is definitely an idea about how to play, a comprehensive concept about how to win a match. As some critics point out, it has its conservative side; all that possession and restless geometric dicing of the midfield sometimes means that not much happens around the goal mouth. Not everyone can play this way—it takes a seamless midfield on the order of Xavi/Iniesta/Busquets. But Spanish victory would seal tiki-taka as the state of the art, for now.

This takes nothing away from The Netherlands, but these Dutch are a much more makeshift and scrappy side. If Spain is a crisp-lined modernist house with net-zero carbon impact, this version of the Oranje is a sprawling, weather-beaten compound littered with mismatched machinery, where the residents shave their heads and brew their own biodiesel. They tackle hard and create from there. Their goals come on guerrilla raids or rude little set pieces. The Dutch are improvisers and opportunists, and they get lucky too often for it to count as luck.

Another way to look at, perhaps: football is a game of control, but also of incident. Spain is the team of control. Holland is the team of incident. Usually involving Van Bommel.

I should note that I like watching teams like The Netherlands. The progressive-peacenik-social-democrat segment of my being would naturally like to see a team of thinkers—Spain, in this case—win. But there’s another part of me that digs the piratical smash-and-grab operation the Dutch have going. A Dutch win would be a self-contained coup, One Last Big Job for a lot of their aging safe-crackers and gunsels.

Era, or accident? In five hours, we’ll find out.



Jul. 8 2010 — 12:44 pm | 604 views | 0 recommendations | 5 comments

2010: The Year Soccer Broke

WM 1990 - Tony Meola - USA - Panini Sticker

Image by Thomas Duchnicki :: Location Scout via Flickr

The World Cup’s final stages call forth, as they always do, certain inevitable developments. England goes down like a 12-story building fashioned entirely from burnt newspaper. A plucky underdog seizes the world’s attention, loses in heartrending fashion, and is then immediately forgotten. (Ghana 2010 isn’t so much Cameroon 1990 as South Korea 2002.) Shallow commentators (ahem) hail some team as the future-defining Next Model of the Modern Game, only to watch it unravel quite thoroughly. (Germany? Germany? Germany? You have a match against Spain toda—oh, no. Yesterday. Ah well. Hammer the bejesus out of Uruguay and we’ll see you next time.)

And, of course, we come to the ritual airing of the Will Soccer Now Make It In America? analyses. The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg offers a particularly solid version—because it’s The New Yorker, and he’s Hendrik Hertzberg—that, nonetheless, defines the invariable form and limits of the genre. Soccer’s global popularity explained; the game’s paradoxical position in American culture examined; anti-soccer gapejaws quoted; statistics cited by the raft-load to demonstrate that football actually has a very robust following in the United States; brief coda in re: cosmopolitanism. This is how it’s done—you can write your own at home.

I just about managed to get through this whole World Cup without absorbing a single example of this article’s eternal counterpart, “Soccer is Gay and Foreign and Makes My Shriveling Mind Hurt” by [INSERT 50-SOMETHING DAILY NEWSPAPER SPORTS COLUMNIST or TALK RADIO HOST WITH AGE-INAPPROPRIATE SOUL PATCH]. My ability to avoid this nonsense no doubt owes to a complex structural change in the media, fragmentation, et cetera et cetera. The whole Soccer is Gay argument is also retreating deeper and deeper into the Hindu Kush of know-nothing obduracy, which makes it harder for a respectable family man such as myself to care much. In his piece, Hertzberg refers to such noted experts on sporting culture as Glenn Beck, G. Gordon Liddy and full-tilt oddball Marc Thiessen. I think this list pretty much speaks for itself. If Chuck Klosterman wants to run around in that crowd, I guess that’s his business.

The anti-soccer “argument,” such as it is, now sounds like something the North Korean media could drum up on a slow day: a spitwad of defunct ideology containing no facts. I’ve been following the sport since 1990, basically, and in that time the case for soccer’s gayness and foreignness hasn’t evolved at all. The sport, meanwhile, has changed beyond all recognition. Being an American soccer fan in 1990 was like being a lover of unicorns. We had a lot of time on our hands to worry about why the former high-school basketball equipment manager who now edited our daily paper’s sports page only printed the FA Cup Final result in agate type.

Now, frankly, we’re too busy. Between the World Cup, the Timbers, Liverpool, Barcelona, the rest of the English Premier League, the rest of Europe, the rest of the world, MLS, my futsal team, kick-abouts with three-year-olds (and Jesus) and trying to keep up with the likes of Run of Play and Pitch Invasion, the football quadrant of my brain is fully occupied. Meanwhile, the continued existence of the Soccer is Gay genre represents yet another lazy failure of modern journalism. Any editor or producer who allows one of their charges to regurgitate this old line in 2010 is just about ready for that buy-out package.

Final memo to my colleagues: soccer is decent-sized at home and huge abroad; all media audiences are now global; you wouldn’t hire a political writer who didn’t know who Barack Obama was, would you?

But, by the same token, it’s time to retire pieces like Hertzberg’s as well. The Soccer is Gay/Will Soccer Make It? dichotomy has become just another obsolete media narrative that ignores developments in the actual world. The anti-soccer side sticks by its excuse for tub-thumping pseudo-populism; the pro-soccer side enjoys its platform for saying nice things about international culture. Meanwhile, objective reality has moved on.

Go have a look at the television ratings: it’s over. Here in Portland, one quarter of all active television sets tuned into the USA v Ghana match. One quarter. Of course, we’re kind of gay and foreign here in Portland. So go watch the YouTube celebrations of Landon Donovan’s goal against Algeria. Lincoln. Springfield. Covington, Kentucky. This thing happened. The glaciers melted. It’s time to get solar panels.

I just devoted a whole book chapter to the curious case of soccer in America, and while I remain fond of that work, I don’t think I’d write it again. The curious case of soccer in America is closed. I guess we could come up with a chant—bigger than NASCAR! bigger than NASCAR!—to pound the point home, but that seems mean-spirited. Having been a soccer fan for 20 years, I have a soft spot for the strange customs of minority groups. It’s not 1990 any more; we don’t have to defend Tony Meola’s haircut. The time has come to live and let live.



Jul. 2 2010 — 7:03 pm | 869 views | 0 recommendations | 8 comments

World Cup: Brazil and Ghana Fall Victim to Soccer’s Cosmic Jokes

Netherlands' midfielder Wesley Sneijder  react...

Image by AFP via @daylife

One set of quarterfinals in the World Cup books, and one must say the entertainment value has repaid all that time we’ve spent listening to vuvuzelas, ignoring Glenn Beck and pretending that Portugal was going to do something. Today’s games were crazy, brutal, heartbreaking, dramatic and—as is always most important—hilarious in their own subtle, nasty way.

The World Cup run-in is high season for weird theories about how football works. Why, some genius just wrote an analysis suggesting that nations only win World Cups if they’ve experienced a period of authoritarian government. (Run of Play’s dissection of this thesis is a better read than the original itself.) There’s the Soccernomics approach, which factors in population, GDP and footballing experience, by which logic neither Uruguay nor Ghana stood a chance of winning today’s match (against one another) for various reasons.

All this theorizing ignores a key (if hoodoo) precept about football, which is: Given a choice between a rational outcome based on two sides’ relative merits and a result that plays a malicious, ironic, smirking little joke on someone, football will most often choose the latter.

Consider poor Brazil. They used to play so prettily—a brand-name circus performance, really—but then the football gods sat them down and gave them a stern talking to. Look, Brazil, we all like this jogo bonito bullshit you’ve been peddling, and please feel free to keep using it in the adverts. But these days, winning is is an adult pastime, so you’ve got to get some discipline and organization and a few bat-swingers in defense. Structure! Holding midfielders! Play like professionals!

So Brazil dutifully goes out and hires a squareheaded martinet of a manager. He puts together a side that leaves out a lot of the Federative Republic’s flair products in favor of cold-blooded pragmatists. The whole outfit spends a solid year bumming out the world with its insistence that winning comes first and, dammit all, we’re not going to have any fun doing it, either.

And, of course, today they needed flair. They ran into the other nation most associated with Art Football; moreover, the other nation that has been slapped around for not getting the result after scientific displays of awesomeness. (Holland is the Arsenal of international football: if they never had to play anyone, they’d win every trophy.) The Dutch lured Brazil into a tight, gritty foul-fest, a Stalingrad-style house-to-house fight all about achieving a position, bunkering in, taking a kick, achieving a position, and doing it all over again. Faced with a side content to tackle, harass, harry and flail in scrubby little set-piece goals, Brazil desperately needed a moment of aesthetic supremacy—an inarguable slash through midfield followed by an exclamatory finish.

Instead, all they had was Dungaball, and some naive and ineffectual thuggery. Dunga. He was the future, once—the guy who was going to grow Brazil the fuck up so it could win in the muscular modern game. Except today they didn’t need muscle. They needed Art. Cala boca Wesley Sneijder, bitches!

Then, Ghana. This is my sixth World Cup, and I have watched a lot of football over the last 20 years. (Time I’ll never get back, I suppose.) And I’ve never seen an ending weirder, more arbitrary and more cruel than the freakshow of missed penalties and evil-doing rewarded that brought the Black Stars’ inspirational, continent-uniting underdog run to an end. I loved it.

See, Ghana distinguished itself by becoming the only African team that knows how to get a result, come what may. Dating back (at least) to their cold-blooded 2006 elimination of the United States, they’ve always been willing to do the business. Dive in the box? Waste a little time with a fake injury? Why not? It’s a Man’s Game, after all.

Football’s message to Ghana: “Oh, you think you’re hardboiled? Meet Luis Suarez’s hand!” I’ve been wracking my brain for a Hand-of-God-style sobriquet for Suarez’s last-second “save”—someone will get there, I’m quite sure—but in the end, it was just the kind of bizarre intervention that twists history one way and not another. Plan all you want, and you cannot plan for Suarez’s hand. Sorry, Black Stars—but you had 120 minutes to win it, and you didn’t, so fare thee well.

Now we have one semifinal set, between two teams riding some seriously dark mojo. What vicious little pranks do football’s elves have in store for the Netherlands and Uruguay? I, for one, look forward to the horror with great eagerness.



Jun. 30 2010 — 4:58 pm | 253 views | 0 recommendations | 4 comments

How to Fix the World Cup, Part 582: The Paraguay Problem

Joseph Sepp Blatter, FIFA president, speaks du...

Image by AFP/Getty Images via @daylife

This morning, I turned on my television at 0700, conditioned to expect the oddly comforting drone of the vuvuzelas and one of ESPN’s plummy Anglo-Saxon accents. Instead: tennis. I have nothing against tennis, but the sudden absence of soccer—this lull between the World Cup round of 16 and quarterfinals—gave me a premature case of post-Cup depression. The end of soccer’s month-long festival always feels weird and empty, and today provided a foretaste of the desolation.

The only obvious cure is to think up ways to improve the World Cup. Oh, some would argue that the current tournament’s massive TV ratings prove that there’s nothing wrong with the World Cup. That view ignores one of the World Cup’s key attractions: there is always something wrong with the World Cup. There are too few European teams, or too many. We need video replay, or we don’t. There’s too much rough play, or too many red cards. The important thing is that there’s always, always, always something that needs fixing, i.e., debating at length.

So far in this World Cup, some problems have solved themselves. Portugal, for example, is out. But other problems loom. At the moment, I’m considering the Problem of Paraguay.

Paraguay, in many ways, is an admirable side. Ferocious. Committed. Organized. Their success in this tournament, as they are bound for a marquee quarterfinal match-up with Spain, testifies to those knottier aspects of football science that I called the weapons of the weak not long ago. One must admire a team from a small, poor country that rides its grit, determination and stubborn skill all the way to the last eight. And I like tight little teams that don’t surrender goals, in part because they piss off shallow American sportswriters.

But the problem is that Paraguay could actually, conceivably, win the World Cup playing this way, and that just won’t do. Whatever the ‘Guay’s steely virtues, their 120-minute 0:0 draw with Japan yesterday was a form of living death. (As Run of Play tweeted from the depths of this game’s existential crisis: “I think the abyss just gazed into me.”) If the CIA didn’t force inmates at all their worldwide black sites to watch that ‘un, they missed a trick in the enhanced interrogation sweepstakes. And yet, without scoring a goal in knock-out play, Paraguay plows on.

Here’s my bright idea: Install a special rule for the World Cup’s first knock-out round. This rule would stipulate that after a 0:0 draw in this round, a penalty-kick shootout is held as per usual. The loser of the shootout is out of the tournament, obviously. However, the winner of the shootout is not guaranteed a place in the quarterfinals. They have to wait. If any other team is eliminated on penalty kicks after scoring a goal in either regulation or extra time, those two teams meet in a special supplemental game scheduled for one of these two fallow days between knock-out rounds. (In other words, if Spain v. Portugal had finished 1:1, the shootout loser would play Paraguay tomorrow. If the US had held Ghana but subsequently lost on penalties, the Americans would play Paraguay tomorrow.)

If an odd number of teams meets these criteria (shootout winner after 0:0; shootout loser after any goals scored), the team with the fewest goals scored in the round—or, as the next tiebreaker, over the course of the tournament—is out.

See what I mean? Of course, as it turned out, none of the other seven games went to penalties, so the point is moot this time. But in the future, this rule would provide a massive incentive not to settle for a 0:0 extra-time draw. If an 0:0 result had already occurred in the round, teams would hesitate before settling for any draw. No players or managers would seek out an extra World Cup game. However, this rule would occasionally provide bonus entertainment for fans and extra revenue for cash-strapped FIFA and Sepp Blatter’s cabana-boy gratuity fund.

I’m sure there’s a flaw here, somewhere. But right now I am too blinded by my own genius to notice.

For more great solutions to sports-world problems you didn’t know we had, check out The Renegade Sportsman, book-length version.


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