Sunday, April 30, 2006

All That Matters

This is nothing new, but it's something that's been on my mind afresh since Arsenal's victory over Villarreal this week. Lots of people agreed that Villarreal played the better game, but everyone more or less said the same thing, which was that, in the end, all that matters is which team won.

Back during the 2002 World Cup, Bruce Arena defended the US team with a remark to the effect of (and I am thoroughly paraphrasing from memory here): it doesn't matter if we play ugly soccer; all that matters is that we win.

Really? Really? I honestly don't believe that I am the only person left on the planet who would be less than perfectly satisfied if every football match ever played was ugly, defensive, brutish, conservative, uncreative, and boring so long as one's team produced results. Obviously, I am taking this to its absurd extreme--but so do some managers and some teams.

I am wary of the kind of thinking in any situation that insists that "good enough" is as good as something ever needs to be. Winning isn't everything . . . and it isn't the only thing. On the other hand, matches must be won, money must be made, managers and players must show some success and no fan wants to endure a harrowing season like Sunderland's or a slaughter like the 5-0 defeat of the Timbers last season--but when results are that poor there's little competence (let alone beauty) on the pitch; it's not as though those are examples in which we were dazzled all the way to the abysmal end. There needs to be a balance. I'm not quite sure what that balance is or where to find it, but I know what I want to see: attacking football, creativity and joy, flair, romance, personality, derring-do, risktaking. People say: You must be realistic, after all. But isn't that what we have occupations like, say, tax accountant and actuary for?

It's not beauty, per se, that I expect all the time and from every team (the USL, after all, is rarely beautiful). But I don't like the sentiment that getting the job done trumps all. There are plenty of sports in which that is sufficient. If it can't always be the beautiful game, I still want it to be a game worth watching.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Soccer Miscellany

FC Barcelona beat lowly Cadiz on Saturday 1-0 with a Ronaldinho strike in the ninth minute, almost securing the Catalans' inevitable clinch of the Primera Division crown second year in a row (18th altogether). I say almost because the clinch this weekend is predicated on whether or not second place Valencia win over Alaves tomorrow. If the downtrodden Alaves somehow manage to squirm a win away from Valancia (not very likely), then Barca get their trophy tomorrow. If not, then the Catalans will just have to wait a little longer . . . .

But perhaps the high point for Barca was the return of midfielder Xavi after being sidelined for the last five months due to a knee injury. The Spanish national player will now be fit to play in both Barca's Champions League final against Arsenal and in the World Cup in June.

Also, ever wonder what footballers enjoy reading? Check out this link from the Guardian to find out all about it. Though somehow I don't think that reading the paper every day should count for Chelsea midfielder and self-described "news junkie" Joe Cole, no matter how long he pores. Pick up a real book someday, mate. I'm sure Jose has a copy of "How to Win Friends and Influence People" lying around in the office.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Where to Watch Soccer in P-Town, Part One

The other day I promised a review of the Marathon as a soccer-viewing venue. We shall leave aside the question of why it took the writers of a pretty move so long to shuffle on down Burnside to assess the delights of this amiable dive bar (speculation might include suggestions such as: we are slow on the uptake and only recently realized they show soccer there; we don't get out much; we are unforgivably lazy).

Anyway, the Marathon proved to be everything the Barfly review promised. Friendly service, fantastic widescreen televisions, other footie fans (for atmosphere and camaraderie), and our late-morning breakfast of coffee, eggs, bacon, and toast for two came to a whopping $5.50 (and it would have been only $5, except we splurged on some half-and-half because the packets of CoffeeMate depressed us). As far as I know, the only channel they don't get is ESPN Deportes. Also, they are very sweet on the telephone when you ring them up to inquire about upcoming matches. a pretty move gives the Marathon a thumbs up, a seal of approval, a satisfied smooch. We'll definitely be back.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

a pall over sunderland

This unprecedented run of ill luck must be addressed, and seems to radiate from the Stadium of Light itself (not a single home win, not all season, not one). In 1997 the Black Cats knocked down Roker Park and opened their new arena with a match against Ajax and HRH Prince Andrew presiding over ceremonies. It was built on the site of the former Monkwearmouth Colliery. If this were a horror film, the course would be apparent. A curse has been dropped down upon the place: the grounds beneath it must be excavated, the body of the disgruntled miner (possibly a wayward Newcastle fan) found and buried with proper respect in sanctified ground.

Or perhaps the maleficence originates in the name itself? "Stadium of Light" has a pretentious sound, and a vaguely funereal one (Benfica can get away with it; many a sin goes pardoned in a romance language). Or is it a case of muddled feng shui? Leys are powerful in Britain, it's well known. If there lies a strong magnetic vortex beneath the old Monkwearmouth Colliery, the sheer intensity of dragon energy may be the catalyst for the current disaster. If that is the case, the Stadium of Light, regrettably, must be razed and another built on more benevolent ground. In the meantime, is there a middle school in the area willing to rent out its pitch?

Iranian Women Return to Stadiums

Since I mentioned the other day that Franklin Foer's book How Soccer Explains the World deals with, among other things, the ways in which Iranian women have defied the ban against attending football matches, I thought it was worth nothing here that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has officially decreed that women will be allowed back into the stadiums--albeit in a separate section. Also, it is being characterized as a decision which will promote chastity.

Baby steps, right?

I don't mean to be too sarcastic, actually. This is good news, and I am very pleased that Iranian women will no longer have to disguise themselves as men to watch footie live.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Barca Dances On

We just got back from watching the Barca/AC Milan Champions League semi-finals, and though it ended in a nil-nil draw, the Catalans still move on to the finals (to be held in Paris on May 17th) against the Gunners (who won their bid to further their Champions hopes yesterday in a dreary nil-nil win over underdogs Villarreal) due to a one goal aggregate from the first leg. But unlike the twitchy Arsenal/Villa match, Barca played well and had more than a few brilliant opportunities--as did AC Milan--from Juliano Billetti (a fantastic chance in the 53rd minute that he simply failed to transform into GOAAAAL!!!!) and Henrik Larsson (who blew his chance in the 73rd) among others by the usual gang of suspects.

And despite the missed shots on goal, Barca managed to never lose their cool and kept the never flagging Milan squad from getting the upper hand, though for moments I felt myself blacking out from the tension and around the 50th minute kept wishing that the game would end soon so I could simply bask in the glow.

In regards to yesterday's Arsenal win--I hate to add to the criticism, but the Gunners really did play a particularly tight-assed game. Perhaps I just haven't watched them enough, and I'll certainly own up to the fact that I haven't over the years, but Arsenal's asleep at the wheel style of play and their ability to clamp down on Villa's persistent attacks left me feeling a bit mixed about the whole affair. I like the Gunners, and no doubt wanted them to win, but in the end I couldn't help but feel that the Yellow Submarine had the moral victory. Villa controlled much of the tempo and arguably would have finished off Arsenal if it hadn't been for stress-case Gunners keeper Jens Lehmann's marvelous saves. Sorry to my Gunners friends out there, but I felt a little disappointed by the end. But it's all about putting the ball in the net, isn't it? Sadly, it can't always be pretty.

You can read the play-by-play of the Barca/AC Milan match here.

Meet the Lads in Green

As posted over at the essential Timbers Weblog, there will be a casual meet and greet with the Timbers at the Bitter End Pub tomorrow at 7:00 to 9:00. Should be a lot of fun and a great way to heighten the anticipation for the home opener on May 5th at PGE Park. Suds and soccer--what could be better?

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Soccer for the American Novice : An Occasional Feature

I've specified American up there because I figure if you've grown up almost anywhere else in the whole world, you have absorbed football into your very pores, kind of the way every American kid probably knows what a home run is. If you 've grown up somewhere else and don't love football, it's not out of ignorance, and presumably you don't need our guidance.

So, this is addressed to my fellow Americans. Maybe you've stumbled in here by accident. Maybe you are a friend of ours, whom we've strong-armed over to this blog and you have no idea what we're talking about. Or maybe you're someone who's actually gotten the news that the biggest sporting event in the world is happening in less than two months (yes, bigger than the Superbowl, and unlike the Olympics, selling tickets is not a problem) and you are wondering if there might be something worth getting into about this soccer thing, but it's all a bit confusing to you, and anyway, don't people who go to soccer matches usually end up getting beaten up by gangs of roaming hooligans?

Fear not. a pretty move is here to help you make the transition from novice to fanatic.

First of all, this is an amazing time to jump in and fall in love. There's nothing quite like the World Cup for getting a sense of the sheer universality and passion of the game. As we draw closer to the big tournament itself, we'll be writing about some of the players and squads to watch. Did you know it's only 45 days away?

But today I'm going to recommend some great soccer books. These are great ways to begin understanding the passion of supporters and the place football occupies in peoples' lives around the world. Begin with the Hornby or the McGinniss; I am slightly partial to the McGinniss myself, because it was the first one I read.

The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, by Joe McGinniss
Part travel narrative, part sports book, McGinniss's story chronicles a year spent with a barely-professional soccer team from an Italian village that unexpectedly finds themselves in Serie B, the second-highest league in the country. McGinniss's tale ranges from the hilarious to the tragic, alternately exhilirating and depressing, romantic and cynical, and you'll never, ever forget the coach, Jaconi, who encourages his players to drink and smoke and frets over any match which does not end in a draw--preferably nil-nil. Anything else causes him great anxiety: It is not normal. The book is infused with both McGinniss's passion for the game and the love Italians have for their calcio. I read this when I didn't know a damn thing about soccer, and even then I thought it was one of the best books I'd ever read.

Fever Pitch, by Nick Hornby
This is an affable and funny book about the author's life (and repeated heartbreak) as an Arsenal fan (a club he actually had to commute to as a child in order to see). Hornby wears his heart on his sleeve and you may well find yourself falling in love with Arsenal right along with him. He's unafraid to reveal the depths of his obsessiveness: anxiety, for example, that chances are, someday, he will die midseason--thereby never finding out who will win. Another fantastic read for beginners--or if you are already a fan, to press on unsuspecting friends, relatives, and significant others, starting the conversion process.

Soccer in Sun and Shadow, by Eduardo Galeano
This is the best book ever written about soccer. It is the best book that will ever be written about soccer. It is the Bible of soccer books; like those devoted religious folk who declare the only book they need is the Good Book, this is the only soccer book that ever needs to be. Why, then, isn't it first on my list? I think it is a book better appreciated once you have a little familiarity with the beautiful game. I think, to a certain, extent, it is written for those of us who are already fans. The Hornby and the McGinniss books are tricky: they draw you in with narrative and humor and then they hook you and you come out on the other side without realizing you were being indoctrinated. Galeano starts with the assumption that, like all right-minded people, you understand that there is nothing, nothing in the world more beautiful than soccer: that at its best, what you may see on the pitch is nothing less than "the carnal delight of embracing the forbidden adventure of freedom." Lyrical, melancholy, rhapsodic, this is an unabashed love letter to the greatest sport of all.

How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization, by Franklin Foer
I put this book last, not because it is not a good book, but because it is more journalistic in tone than the others and thus less likely to sweep up the unsuspecting reader in a frenzy of footie passion. However, this is a very good book for understanding the role soccer plays in people's lives around the world, and how it truly does become more than a game, from Red Star Belgrade's involvement in the dreadful ethnic Balkan conflicts of the 1990s to the ways in which Barca became a symbol of dissent against the Franco dictatorship. Foer's ambitious book takes us from the neighborhoods of upper-middle-class "soccer moms" in suburban America to rebellious women in oppressive Islamic societies daring to take in the forbidden spectacle of their local squad on the pitch. A great look at the simmering tensions, economics, politics, and more behind the sport.

Footie at the Marathon

Two-thirds of a pretty move will be heading down to the Marathon Taverna on Wednesday to catch the second leg of the Barca/AC Milan Champions League semi-final. Should be an amazing match. We hear they love soccer at the Marathon and it's great that they're showing this game since Setanta is not exactly a readily-available channel for us mere mortals.

And tomorrow at 11:30 on ESPN 2 you can catch the second leg of the Arsenal/Villarreal match. I have to admit Villarreal's made a pretty inspiring rise from humble circumstances, and normally I am a sucker for the underdog, but my heart's with Arsenal on this one. Anyway, who wants the Champions League Cup to come down to just another La Liga match?

A final with Barca and Arsenal will be a thing of beauty indeed--two of the greatest players in the world today, Ronaldinho and Thierry Henry, facing off in Paris. Nothing beats the sheer excitement and variety of World Cup, but it's in the Champions League where you are likely to see some of the finest soccer being played.

We'll be reporting back on the Marathon as a venue for footie-viewing (though we've heard nothing but praise and expect to add to that).

Soccer Miscellany

Stalwart Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard ended an already fantastic weekend--Liverpool knocked Chelsea out of the FA Cup semifinals 2-1--by being named the Professional Footballers' Association's Player of the Year. What a start to the week for this low-key, always engaging and reliable midfielder. I've got high hopes that he'll have a good World Cup with the rest of the England squad.

Meanwhile, in another bizarre news item involving "sick voyeur" Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, Tottenham manager Edgar Davids has accused Wenger of manhandling him in the tunnel after the match, but Metropolitan Police claim they saw nothing. Huh. That Wenger. If he's not peeking in your windows he's throwing punches at you the second the coppers turn their backs.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

The Biggest Star in the World

Elsewhere in the past I've made my feelings clear about the nonsense that once spewed from the Real Madrid corner that Ronaldinho was "too ugly" to play for them, and as Paul Wilson points out in the Guardian, that miscalculation has cost them plenty. We get a little skittish around here at a pretty move when we see words like "marketing" and "commerciably viable" attached to our game, but we do recognize that it's those very elements that have given footie from around the world the global reach to turn up on our television sets in Oregon (as well as ensuring that hope springs eternal that someday MLS might metamorphose into something more promising than a League of Stunning Mediocrity).

Anyway, around here we love Ronaldinho because watching him play, you get the feeling he's having the best time in the world--just as those Eric Cantona spots tell us. (Damn you, Nike, with your seductive advertising!) He has indeed got charm to spare, and that's why he's the superstar of the football world--because amid talk of money and more money and contract negotiations and winning at all costs, he reminds us all of the sheer joy of the game itself, of the ways things ought to be.

Up the Irons!

Although I haven't yet watched the game (It's taped and waiting for me at home), I couldn't help but check the score when I arrived at work this morning. Despite my questionable priorities, I'm glad that I did take a peek to discover that the hardnosed West Ham squad beat Boro and are now set to play in the FA Cup final against Liverpool (who beat thoroughly unlikeable Chelsea yesterday 2-1). It's been 26 years since the Hammers last made it to the FA finals, and though I do like Liverpool an awful lot, it's all about the Hammers for me.

For a detailed overview of the match click here.

Portland Timbers Season Opener

As we said in the welcome post, we've been thinking about starting a soccer blog for a while now. And what better time to inaugurate it than with the opening day of the Portland Timbers 2006 season?

The Timbers played their season opener against the Vancouver Whitecaps tonight in Vancouver. Lynda and I listened to the game on the webcast and unfortunately, the Timbers lost 1-0. An inauspicious beginning for both the season and our new blog. With a new coach and quite a few players who are inexperienced at this level of the game, some bumps at the beginning of the road are to be expected. Yeah, of course I'm biased, and I expect that the Timbers will get some retribution at the home opener on May 5 when they meet the Whitecaps again--putting an end to our two-year drought against our northern neighbors. Rose City Till I Die!


We've been wanting to do this for a while now. We hope to be adding a third contributor in a day or two. We'll be talking about all things footie here: from World Cup to the US Open Cup, from the snarky to the sublime. We'll be providing you with gossip, quips, rants, interesting news items, and more thoughtful ruminations on the people's game. Stick around and hopefully we'll keep you entertained.