Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Of Girls, Black Cats, and De-Relegation

De-relegation? Unrelegation? At any rate, stop the presses! The decision to send Fiorentina and Lazio down has been reversed, and Juventus has their point reduction lowered to 17 from 30.

Meanwhile, 10-year-old South London tyke Minnie Cruttwell successfully persuades MPs that the FA needs to do the right thing and let girls keep playing football with boys past the age of 11; she herself is "just as good as boys." The FA will release their own conclusions in September; here's hoping they get their heads out of their asses and into the twenty-first century on this issue and ramp up their funding and support for women in the sport. (No reason why those of us who like to watch men getting all sweaty as they perform heroic feats of athleticism should have all the fun, after all.) Seriously, I am delighted by young Minnie's courageous efforts and look forward to the day when it would not even occur to anyone to suggest that women footballers are a bunch of divers. (No, I'm never going to get over that.)

And finally, another tidbit of news we were too busy watching (and recovering from) the World Cup to report on till now: long-suffering Sunderland supporters got a reprieve from their anguish when the team was purchased earlier this month by beloved former Black Cats striker and Irish international Niall Quinn. Quinn will act as both manager and chairman, doubtless a relief to fans who blamed the former chairman and board of directors for Sunderland's abysmal 2005-2006 season. Meanwhile former Sunderland and Republic of Ireland manager and Roy Keane nemesis, the ruggedly handsome Mick McCarthy, is named as new head of the Wolves, in hopes he will lead them back into the Premiership, as he did for Sunderland before things went so horribly, horribly wrong.

Timbers Take a Tumble

This account of the Timbers' embarrassing weekend delayed on account of all of us collapsing into a heat-induced coma. Let's hear it for global warming!
Oh my. Oh Timbers. Not good this weekend. Not good at all. I don't want to kick my team when they're down. They're my team, after all. If the Timbers played Barcelona, if the Timbers played an all-star team composed of my own hand-picked favorite players like Riquelme and Messi and Ribery and Thuram and Gerrard and Ronaldinho and Terry and so on, I'd still root for the Timbers. Who were not good this weekend. I know this. They know this. I did not see them play in Seattle on Saturday, but on Friday, I saw this: The passing is a mess. The marking is off. The finishing is a disaster. What happened to my fast, creative, fun-to-watch team? It's as though I looked away for a month of World Cup and when I looked back they had been replaced by...by slow, dull, confused amateurs. And I know these players are capable of so much more.

Okay, we weren't terrible in the first half. And we showed some courage and spirit toward the end of the second half. And Hugo Alcarez-Cuellar's shot into the net was lovely in its precision.

It's not really about where we are in the standings--tenth place--although if we had promotion and relegation, which is a rant for another day, we'd be in the danger zone. On second thought, that's a rant for right now. There's so little at stake in American soccer. You can only move so high or so low, and nothing matters much from season to season. I'd like to see us in the playoffs this year, but not if we're going to crash and burn as ignominiously as we did last September. I suppose I just want us to play well for the remainder of the season--to play up to our potential, whether we win or lose.

Friday night was miserably hot, by the way, having hit 104 degrees earlier in the day, so after the second half, cross and exhausted from the heat, we moved out of 107 into 206. Since I tend to hunker down in 107 with a singleminded concentration, this new seating arrangement provided an interesting perspective. We sat in 207 a couple of years back, along with one or two dozen other people; this past Friday it was too crowded. The Army is exponentially louder than they were two years ago. As for the middle sections halfway cross the park, did they prop corpses in those seats, or what? Even our one goal appeared incapable of rousing them from their stupor. For the love of Clive Charles, people. At least pretend to show a little enthusiasm. You're a disgrace!

Final weekend results: Seattle wins 2-1 Friday and 3-1 Saturday (face-saving goals scored by Hugo and by Luke Kreamalmeyer). We sit in tenth place while Team Evil ascends to seventh. Rose City Til I Die!

Friday, July 21, 2006

Timbers v Sounders Tonight!

Dreading leaving your air-conditioned workplace to bake inside your hot as hell home? Looking forward to letting off a little more steam while the region cooks in temps breaking 100? Why not head on down to PGE Park tonight and root for the Rose City's finest? The Portland Timbers take on Seattle tonight at 8:00, and though the match will be televised on Fox Soccer Channel, our hometown lads need to see and hear you in the flesh. C'mon, do it! The joint ain't air-conditioned, I know, but the post-World Cup euphoria will still be strong and our Timbers need your support in taking down the villians from up north. Plus, there's beer. What more do you want?

Thursday, July 20, 2006

In Which We Revisit the Dark Side

As World Cup 2006 begins to recede in our rearview mirror, we here at a pretty move turn our attention to the rest of the football world, namely Italy, where arguably the biggest football scandal in history has been unfolding since May. Punishments handed down last week further outraged calcio fans, as Juventus (stripped of recent titles), Lazio, and Fiorentina were unthinkably demoted to Serie B and AC Milan, the only one spared, faces heavy fines and a significant point deduction with the new season. Needless to say, you won't see the likes of these squads back in the Champions League anytime soon. Also needless to say, everyone feels very hard done by and is pointing fingers at everyone else, whose fault it really was. Filmmaker Franco Zeffirelli calls on Fiorentina fans to "cut Italy in half!" to protest the team's demotion, but there had been talk of sending the guilty down to an even lower league. Some might say all the teams ought to be grateful to have gotten off as lightly as they did.

(Meanwhile, World Soccer reports that former Juventus director and all around super-villian Luciano Moggi made an average of 416 phone calls per day between November of 2004 and June of 2005, a figure which makes my telephone-hating self want to lie down with a cold compress on my forehead. What is he, a fourteen-year-old girl?)

When a book about Italian soccer played a large part in my tuning in to the sport in the first place, I assumed I would faithfully follow the ups and downs of Serie A; to my surprise, I found Italian soccer, as seen on TV at least, entirely unloveable. Later, after reading Franklin Foer's chapter on Italy in How Soccer Explains the World--which suggested just such a scenario of corruption and match-fixing--I thought of every result as tainted. I loved the idea of Italians' passion for the game, but I found it unwatchable.

A funny thing happened as the Italian squad dived, fouled, and--lest we forget it--impressively attacked and defended their way into the final round, even as the fate of soccer back in Italy grew grimmer by the day. I found myself watching them in grudging admiration. Something about the scandal has been purging--there, it's all out in the open now, what I suspected all along--and while a style of play which makes great use, among other things, of so consistently and cynically drawing fouls is repellent to me, I began to find it fascinating as well. Of course, I find the Borgias fascinating as well.

But I wouldn't invite the Borgias over for dinner (goodness, no, of all things!), while this is a little different. I believe I could grow fond of these lads. It's no secret that government and business in modern Italy are mired in corruption. And if you've ever lived or spent much time in a place where corruption and bribery and peddling influence are woven so deep into the country's infrastructure that it's impossible to get anything done independent of it--and I mean anything, like get a job, an apartment, a place in school--you begin to realize it is something else besides cynical and corrupt. It is a way of life. It is what you do to survive. It becomes irrelevant, in a way. Viewed in this way, what's a little theatrical tumble between friends?

Make no mistake. I am sickened and horrified by match-fixing. It makes me want to rail and shake my fist at the heavens demanding to know is there nothing good and sacred in the world? What remains to be seen is whether this will clean up il calcio once and for all or if this is simply a case of meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Meanwhile, as chronicled by Lisa, while players from the four teams rush to sign new contracts, Pavel Nedved looks set to stay put at Juventus, as does Alessandro del Piero.

And speaking of the Czechs, and football scandal, my one-time home of Mlada Boleslav is set to enter Champions League competition for the first time amid similar scandal-mongering. Anyone out there know any more about this? I only learned of it a few days ago when hopelessly outdated copies of World Soccer finally turned up locally (apparently shipped by a Thor Heyerdahl-style boat to our distant frontier shores). I did a bit of searching online but since my Czech language repertoire basically consists of "Dobry den! Mluvite anglicky?" I'd be most grateful to anyone who can ferret out information more current than from this past May. Meanwhile, until I hear further, I shall be cheering on the Mlada Boleslavians in their bid for European domination!

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

more rumors!

All right, I spoke too soon when I said Ruud was Madrid-bound. I still think he is; I think Fergie is being coy. He can't have both Ruud and Cristiano sulking on the bench all season. That would be one very costly sulk.

Regarding what is being called the Great Italian Fire-sale, Zambrotta is the belle of the ball, courted by Chelsea, Real Madrid and Barca, but he says he wants to go to AC Milan. Buffon also wants to go to Milan, although Arsenal and Man U both salivate after him. There's also some hint that Man U will happily settle for Dida if Buffon makes him expendable. Chelsea wants Cannavaro but he wants Madrid, as well. Real also wants Emerson.

Juventus says both Del Piero and Nedved are planning to stay put, despite recent intimations that the Czech was Tottenham-bound. Patrick Vieira and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (did I spell that right?) may be bound for Internazionale. Milan says both Kaka and Gattuso are set to stay.

In Premiership news: Wigan has signed Dutch midfielder Denny Landzaat for three years, and there's talk they may get Hearts defender Andy Webster as well.

West Brom is refusing to sell Kuszczak to Man U for the time being, and Spurs, Pompey and the Gunners are all vying for defender Curtis Davies. As of yesterday, Pompey seemed to have the edge, and are also casting a lustful eye on Celtic midfielder Stilian Petrov. Portsmouth are also hot on the heels of Manuel Fernandes, 20-year-old Benfica midfielder, and Nicolas Anelka from Fenerbahce.

Darren Bent has signed a new four-year contract with Charlton, spurning Newcastle advances, and Charlton captain Luke Young has renewed as well, putting the kibosh on rumors of a jaunt to West Ham. The wonderfully-named Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink will also don the Charlton kit.

Meanwhile, Fulham wants Boro defender Franck Queudrue, and Everton wants to re-sign Real Madrid's Thomas Gravesen. Tottenham is looking to Italy for Lazio's Massimo Oddo and Blackburn Rovers are negotiating with Roma for Egyptian striker Mido. Word is that Lucas Neill will stay with the Rovers for now.

Arsenal may be interested in Lilian Thuram, but he wants to go to Barca. Wenger has also made a bid for Ribery but says he's not interested in Saviola. He's covered in front, he says, and it's the back-field needs shoring up, thanks.

Tottenham are getting Irish winger Damien Duff from Chelsea.

Liverpool are loaning Cisse to Marseille but there's talk they'll get a loan of Juventus striker David Trezeguet, which might be very exciting indeed. Benitez is also hot on the trail of Dirk Kuyt of Feyenoord.

And now for the big news (if you're Derek, anyway): Bolton has agreed to release Borgetti! After a season wasted warming Allardyce's bench, the legendary Mexican star is ready to move someplace where he's wanted. No word yet where.

In other Bolton news, the rumor mill says they're looking at Lanus center-back Leandro Gioda and Juan Velasco from Atletico Madrid.

This is fun.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Long Hard Road for Timbers

What happened? That seems to have been my question of the month in regards to the World Cup, and now I can apply it to the Portland Timbers as well. And they've been playing pretty well as of late, especially if you factor in the injuries that have hit the squad and the fact that this road trip had the Timbers playing three matches in four days. Nevertheless, the road trip down south wasn't easy and our lads were knocked out of the U.S. Open Cup on Wednesday by the Charleston Battery, lost a regular season game against the same team on Friday (3-2), and had the tar beaten out of them on Sunday against Atlanta (4-0). Tough going indeed. If there's some good that came out of this hard lesson, it's that midfielder Luke Kreamalmeyer was named to the USL Team of the Week! Good job, man.

The Timbers play again this Friday at PGE Park against that team from up north. You know, from that place with the giant syringe sticking skyward. So come out and support our lads! And the game will also be broadcast live on FOX Soccer Channel.

A few belated and (perhaps not) final World Cup thoughts

Sal, are you still reading? I have at last learned to appreciate not only the fine art of defense, but Italian footballing in general. Not that I was happy with their defeat of my late and hastily-adopted Les Bleus, of course, and let me be clear: I will always love the attacking style best, and I will never approve of the "score one goal, clamp down for the rest of the game" approach. And one reason I enjoyed watching the Italians play this year was because they did show us something besides the old catenaccio. Still, I'm impressed enough that I'm planning to watch some Serie A this year.

Kudos to Oregon Sports Authority for the massive finals party in the square last Sunday, which drew approximately 8,000. Although it was about 150 degrees and Derek's sunburn just stopped peeling the other day, what a fun way to experience a little bit of what fans got in Germany, throughout Europe, and in much of the rest of the world. It's good to live in Soccer City USA. And it salved the pain of France's loss a little bit when the carloads of happy Italians starting driving round my neighborhood waving flags, honking their horns, and shouting "I-TAL-IA!" out their windows.

Germany put on a fantastic Cup and I'm sorry I wasn't there. I am pleased that the tournament and the performance of the German team (about which I was able to feel much more generous, once they were safely out of the finals!) has led to resurgence of German pride. Over and over again, I've heard talk about how the Germans felt they could display their flag again without shame for the first time since WWII.

Worst thing about the Cup for me? "All Italians/Mexicans/Argentinians/pick your darker-complexioned person of choice here" (funny, it was never, say, England, although I saw dubious moves from plenty of northern European players as well) "are cheaters/divers/etc." In a place as untrammeled as the Net, it becomes very difficult to talk about the propensity of several players on any particular national team to, say, flop around on the pitch a bit too much without seeming to open the door to troglodytic types who are just waiting to glom on in hysterical agreement: "Yeah! All Mexicans are cheaters! And they take our jobs! Build a wall! Nyah!" Lovely. Restores your faith in humanity, it does. On the other hand, I saw some encouraging efforts on the part of several World Cup bloggers to encourage good sportsmanship, imploring fans to extend congratulations to teams that defeated them rather than adopting the tactics of the lowest common denominator.

Finally, Zizou and Materazzi, talked to death already, but here goes: first, I am utterly unconvinced that Zizou has not heard and dished out similar insults throughout his career. As I predicted, the remark had nothing to do with racism (or terrorism, for heaven's sake--"If you support Italy the terrorists will have won!"), which many seemed to secretly hope, as it might have made the whole incident a nice tidy black-and-white (no pun intended) issue with a clear right and wrong. In the days that followed, both of them began to sound rather shamefaced at having lost their respective heads yet in need of continuing to portray the insult as wretched beyond the telling (Zizou) or meant in most respectful terms, ultimately, as these things go (Materazzi). In the end, I can only say that it's a good thing Zizou has never played in front of the Timbers Army or he might have sent a rocket launcher into the stands.

Those of you who believe Rooney and Zizou should be pardoned (and please remember, both players I like a great deal) because Cristiano Ronaldo (whom I dislike) or Materazzi made them do it, I ask you: did your mother, or any other adult, ever buy that excuse when you were a kid? I didn't think so. I imagine if we expect eight-year-olds to be responsible for their own actions to a certain extent we can require the same of multimillionaires. As far as I'm concerned, keeping your cool on the pitch is a skill as crucial as dribbling, shooting, and defending. Ultimately I find personal attacks both childish and distasteful, whether it's coming from the opposing side or my fellow supporters. There are other ways to unsettle your opponents. But it happens, and as long as I'm not allowed to headbutt the girl on her cellphone in an SUV who nearly ran me down in a heavily pedestrian area in which I had the right-of-way last week , I think these players can stand to grow a thicker skin.

Onwards to South Africa 2010! We plan to be at the party next time, rather than simply watching it from afar.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

the rumor mill and some done deals

Is Ashley Cole headed for the gravy train that is Chelsea? You'd think Shevchenko, Ballack, Kalou and Jon Obi Mikel would overturn a boat already weighty with talent. On the upside for Arsenal, they get Tomas Rosicky (lucky bastards), and Javier Saviola, the incredibly talented Argentine, has voiced interest, as well.

Valencia wants Chelsea to give up Asier del Horno.

Real Madrid wants Ribery. Everyone does, I mean, but they get first dibs.

Newcastle wants Klose, but then, so does Real Madrid.

Ruud Van Nistelrooy gets his wish to leave Man U and take his place amongst the golden boys at Real Madrid.

Man U teammate Quinton Fortune is bound for Bolton, as is Djimi Traore, longtime Liverpool defender. Man U gets Michael Carrick from Tottenham and West Bromwich Albion keeper Tomasz Kuszczak as well.

Micah Richards travels from Man City to Tottenham. Liverpool loses Didi Hamann to Man City (after the quickest ever residency at Bolton...about five minutes). Fernando Morientes is gone, too, to Valencia, but the Reds have signed the rowdy Welsh striker Craig Bellamy from Blackburn Rovers and Gabriel Paletta, 20-year-old Argentine central defender.

Boro gets to keep Downing (coveted by Tottenham) but the deal for Robert Huth fell through when he failed a medical exam. Man City captain Sylvain Distin is coveted by Boro, probably to no avail.

The latest word on Diego Forlan is that he's resisted the siren song of Barca to stay on at Villarreal. Let's hope Riquelme is so strong as to resist the deadly lure of Chelsea.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Timbers Out of Cup

Half way across the globe, far away from that nameless little sporting event that just flickered out, is the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. It's the country's oldest and most prestigious soccer tournament, involving clubs from every level--amateur and professional--and is the closest thing the U.S. has to the type of grandiose and epic European tournaments like the Champions League, UEFA Cup, or England's FA Cup.

Well, the Portland Timbers played the Charleston Battery last night, in Charleston, and lost 3-1. Portland's Luke Kreamalmeyer, who has been having a fine season so far, scored early in the game off of a Mamba Chisoni assist. But Charleston came back and subsequently booted us out of the tournament. Too bad, since the Timbers usually perform well in the Cup. But as it was stated over at the Timbers Weblog, it's not such a terrible thing for the team right now, especially taking into account all of the injuries that they're dealing with.

Oh well.

The Timbers play Charleston again on Friday (as part of the regular season) and then Atlanta on Saturday. Next home game is a week from tomorrow, Friday July 21st, when they play Seattle.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

a few things the world cup taught me

If you think watching the World Cup is fun, you're either Italian or not really watching.

Trust no one: fans of Germany, insidiously, sometimes look like anyone else.

Cynicism in the long run is mere cowardice. It can, however, save your life if exercised carefully across a short and partiularly desperate stretch.

Humans who have never been sports fans are more likely to be careful of your feelings when you are lying skinless and broken after a game in the ruin of your shattered ideals. Probably for the same reason that those who were not violated as children are less likely to violate others.

Men are intrigued by a woman with a notebook watching football, and invariably choose a moment like when Messi's goal is ruled offside in which to try and chat one up. (To the guy at the Limelight: sorry, man. I really could not look away from the screen.)

Petulance is rot. Cristiano Ronaldo gets away with it because he's that good, but we still don't LIKE it, it's still a thing that must be FORGIVEN.

Backing seven teams headed into the group rounds doesn't increase your chances of triumph as fully as it guarantees your suffering multiple heartbreaks.

Often you can tell who's going to lose before the game begins by the looks on the players' faces, or the coach's.

Apart from the occasional reluctant salad, sport and vegetables seem to be mutually anathema.

I call it the Gazza Effect, and first noticed it in regard to Steven Gerrard. He's been my secret hero all year, but until he missed his penalty kick he wasn't quite human to me. Now he's moved into that select pantheon of players for whom I feel genuine affection. Same with Zidane. Pre-headbutt: great admiration. Post-headbutt: I fell a little in love.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Does No One in England Practice Their Penalty Kicks?

From the schoolyards of Eton to the concrete tower block jungles, the hue and cry must rise: "Englishmen, practice your penalty kicks!" Is this how the sun finally set on the British Empire?

England's Coventry City FC were felled by the Timbers (sorry) Saturday night following an overtime shoot-out--and did I ever say penalty kicks were a horrible, grim way to end a game? I lied! I had so much fun I still haven't scrubbed the grin off my face! Of course, it helps when you win. And when it's a friendly and nothing is at stake (besides our pride, of course). Still, I haven't seen 107 that excited since the Seattle match. You'd think the Timbers had won the World Cup, not an exhibition match against a squad from the Coca-Cola Championship. The stealthily detonated colorful smoke bombs--ticket to a season ban from the park--were a lovely surprise; don't expect to see that particular scourge of PGE Park security again anytime soon.

Rather soberingly, the Timbers scored their only goal on penalties, and it's now been 5 weeks since we've seen them score at home in open play, or even from a set piece. (They did pick up some goals in their mid-June away tour, with a win in Minnesota and a draw in Rochester.) This begins to sound depressingly like last year's squad instead of our new, shinier, faster, dazzling team, until I remind myself that we've had only three home games since the Seattle match including this one. (And lest we forget, they--and Hugo Alcarez-Cuellar in particular--were splendid in those penalty kicks this past weekend.) In fact, the next match is Seattle again on July 21, then another road trip followed by a whopping six home games straight, one almost every week beginning August 4 in which the Timbers will use the home field advantage to once again storm the heady heights of #1 in the USL. Or so I predict.

Match report, photos, and video here.

Monday, July 10, 2006


Like most of the one billion plus humans who watched yesterday's World Cup final between Italy and France, I'm perplexed by the ruthless red card/assault that Zidane committed on Materazzi in overtime. The ref and most of the television audience may have initially missed the arguably provoked retaliation, but the entire football loving world has had to endure the fallout. And I suspect that Zizou has already taken a long look in the mirror, but God knows what he ended up seeing.

I actually dreamed about him last night--he was moving his things out of his spacious rural digs and the a pretty move crew was helping him. I honestly can't recall much about the "storyline" of the dream any longer, but I do remember him drinking all of the wine in the place (we were invited to partake as well and imbibe we did) and dancing by himself in the corner until he slouched down to the floor laughing. Really. Eventually he got his composure back and ended up dancing with Lisa until he made her sick from all of the spinning. He then proudly exclaimed to the three of us that he was done moving and now it was time to go hunting. Then he grabbed a shotgun from over the fireplace, nestled it in the crook of his left arm with the barrel down, and marched out. I don't recall Zizou and I actually exchanging words, but he sure did smell good and he was easy with the laughter and smiles. A charming thug if ever there was one.

Zidane is no stranger to red cards. He's received something like fourteen red cards over the course of his long and distinguished career, most notably in 1998 when he stomped on the back of a Saudi Arabian player. I haven't followed Zidane's career and I've only seen the Zizou of recent vintage, the "old guy" (he's only thirty-four!) who plays for Real Madrid with the other dinosaurs and who was going to go gracefully out to pasture after this tournament. But like most of the world, I was easily seduced by his comeback story and, more importantly, by his exceptional performances against Spain in the knockout stages and Brazil in the quarter-finals. He was fluid, intelligent, and he had the strength to help carry his team to victory. But when it was time for him to take his parting bow, he blew it. And a billion plus people across the globe gasped, sighed, cried, and laughed all the way to the final penalty kick.

In Monday’s edition of the New York Times, a young French woman was interviewed in the aftermath of her beloved team’s ignominious defeat. “Zidane had this great ambition about how to end his career,” she said. “But the player got overtaken by the man.”

I couldn’t have said it any better. But at least he's not stingy with the wine.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Stories I Didn't Read

In the weeks leading up to this year's World Cup, I imagined what narrative threads I'd follow throughout the tournament. Some of them were on the outlandish side, true, but others were well within the realm of possibility. So what would it be? I was hoping for African Soccer Dazzles on the World Stage--No More Condescending Journalistic Commentary Regarding Their National Squads. And T & T Trounces England. Speaking of England, how about this--Forty Years On, England Lifts the Cup Again At Last. Then there was Clockwork Orange Returns: Total Football is Back!, Nedved Leads Czech Squad to Victory, and Scientist Astounded: Ronaldinho Shown to Actually Defy Known Laws of Physics.

As the Cup got underway and I started to watch how some of the teams performed, I added Americas Shock: Mexico in the Final, Spain: Underachiever No More, and Argentina Takes it All. I even left space for Touching Unanticipated Tale of Scrappy Little Team I Haven't Paid Attention To, Say, Ecuador Or Something.

That's a pretty good number of stories, you know? I mean, I'd have thought one or two of them might have panned out, at least a little bit. When Argentina fell to the implacable-seeming German onslaught, I figured that was it for me and the stories. Not one of them had survived.

I never reckoned on The Rebirth of Zizou (and trailing not far behind, The Rise of Ribery).

Who saw this coming? Not me. In fact, following reports of dissent within the camp and France's lackluster first couple of games, I predicted another group stage exit for Les Bleus. But from the moment Zidane scored that stunner against Spain, a different narrative was being written, even if I didn't realize it yet.

In the eleventh hour, it's been the story that brought me back. You already know the shape of it, of any story that might come out of the World Cup, but familiar stories, if well-told, are no less compelling for their recognizable forms. This is the one about both a man and a squad whose glory was widely considered a thing of the past, about the ugly duckling (no jokes about Ribery, now) of a squad we saw struggling in Group G blossoming into a thing of beauty and grace that shocked both Spain and Brazil. (The Portugal match? Not so much with the grace and beauty, but sometimes to tell a good story you leave out or change the bits that shine a little less.) I would never have believed a week ago that I'd be this excited about Sunday's final. Of course, the end hasn't been written yet (and the Italians are writing one of their own, about the international team's triumph as Serie A football sees its darkest days). I can hardly wait to see how it all turns out. Allez Les Bleus!

The Long Weekend

The entire last month seems like a long weekend to me, but the end of the 2006 World Cup is unfortunately here. It's been a blur, exhilarating, disappointing, euphoric, frustrating, and sometimes just plain sad. But I wouldn't change a thing--other than perhaps incorporating some new rules or at least modifying them, like no longer giving a point to teams that draw during the knockout phases of the tournament. Over at Zach's always enjoyable and intelligently opinionated Eleven Devils blog, that was one of the suggestions that came up in a discussion regarding how to "improve" the modern game, which by some accounts is broken. Is it? Bring the noise over here and let's get this debate rolling! I'm still thinking about it, but the one that really made sense to me was the no points for a draw. I also like the idea of employing another linesman instead of a second ref, which I've heard FIFA is interested in doing. The second ref sounds like a disaster to me (who's going to ultimately be in charge? Not that I'm some authority fetishist or anything) and would only lead to more confusion during difficult calls/games, I think.

Also over at Zach's pad, he's posted some "personal bests" about the Cup watchin' and gives some thought as to the big blowdown that arrives Sunday. I'm pulling for France all the way, though if Italy does win, they will have earned it. Just as long as they don't kill someone during the game, of course. Having watched all of their matches during the Cup, I've been impressed by their tricky balancing act of incorporating a brisk offensive style with their oddly engaging (for me) defensive tactics. I know I'm not saying anything new here or even intelligent, but Italy's super glue marking has been fascinating to behold. Oh yeah, I said fascinating.

But Les Bleus have my heart, and they have Zizou and Ribery(!). So there. In my dream, the match would be 3-2 France. One goal for Ribery, one for Zizou, and one for Barthez when he baffles the world by kicking it into Italy's goal from his own line position, making the otherwise ace Buffon the game's buffoon. Hey, it's my dream damn it!

Big Soccer Weekend in P-Town

Portland locals: while you're gathering your last reserves of energy for the final blow-out weekend of the World Cup, check out the Timbers playing England's Coventry City on Saturday night at 7 pm in PGE Park.

And the Rose City is throwing a World Cup bash of its own Sunday, where you can catch the battle of Italy v France on Sunday in Pioneer Courthouse Square, with thousands of other like-minded mental and barmy sorts. a pretty move will be there early, staking out a claim in the beer garden. If you've spent the month wondering what this World Cup business is all about this is the place to get your baptism by fire.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

all at once, the italians are fun again

Who can resist a laugh when Perrotta (of all humans! I counted four personal dives in the first half alone against Ukraine. Shameless!) makes his little diving motion at a prone Michael Ballack? What exactly did Gattuso say to Ballack that set him into a Rooney-like rage after their collision? And how can you argue with a team that waits until overtime to sneak not one but two goals in past Lehmann? It was an excellent day at the pitch all the way around.

It's a liberating thing, watching two teams you hate at battle. Your subconscious immediately chooses one side as the lesser of two evils: in this case, the Italians. (How could Germany gloat about its victory over the Argentines? Take out their keeper with a knee to the ribs then win in penalties? Where's the glory in that?) It wasn't long, then, before I began to feel a certain fondness for Camoranesi on his tireless and fierce run up and down the wing, and an admiration for the tough Buffon, who'd caught my attention when he bashed his head against the post midway into the Ukraine match and still never gave up a goal. Here is not a man, I said to myself, who would fold beneath German batterings, and if they did manage to stretch play once more into a penalty shoot-out, this is the fellow I'd trust manning the line.

When the goals came, one hard upon the other, I was cheering as lustily as anyone at Beulahland.

That said, I promised my brother that the Italians will not take the Cup. He's scheduled this Sunday to be on a train from Rome to Bosnia and if Italy wins there's a chance the whole country will shut down and he'll be stuck forlornly on a station bench under a sky effulgent with flares and clamoring with the noise of carnival pandemonium.

So France it is. The noble Zidane, the great-hearted Ribery, the very delicate Henry.

I had the pleasure yesterday of watching France v Portugal alongside Derek. My own hopes for France trickle from the shell of a broken heart, whereas his are strong and hardy, but even I bit my nails to the nubs during those last minutes. Here's Portugal on relentless and determined attack, and here's Barthez, shifted firmly into wacky mode. What will he do next? Throw the ball into his own goal in tribute to the absurdity of life? Nothing can be ruled out when Barthez is in goal; it is part of his charm. Derek is screaming BAR-THEEEEEZ on a rising note, like a warning, and suddenly, at the back of the cluster of players, who's that in the blue? Ricardo! With a distinctly Barthez-like flair, unable to stay helpless in goal while the match might be lost at the other end, he runs the length of the pitch to help out! Excellent. As darkly as I hate Cristiano Ronaldo now (it was that wink. A grown-up does not defecate where he eats, my pretty little Mancusian compadre), I'd have gladly seen Portugal into penalties as long as it was Ricardo who equalised.

Still, I'd have regretted it in the morning. Far better that France took their win straight up. It wasn't the tidiest of victories, and they will have to pull together as they did against Brazil in order to vanquish the trickster Italians, but it'll do for now.

Contented, my throat sore from hollering, I take my hat off to the Europeans for two intoxicating days of football.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

The Day the Robot Cried

The renewed and seemingly oblivious to controversy Azzurri squad took down the Cup’s mightily favored Germanic robots today, in a match that was consistently well-played by both national teams and that went into extra time, wherein the Italian side scored two magnificent goals—the first by Fabio Grossman; the second by Alessandro Del Piero—with only a minute left before the dreaded penalty kicks would’ve decided things. With both teams visibly exhausted, Italy managed to find the determination to advance into the final, while Germany was arguably content to hold onto the nil-nil score and gamble everything on the outcome of the final chapter.

I should have been a neutral on this one, but Argentina’s loss to Germany in the quarter finals left a nasty, brutal taste in my mouth, and I couldn’t wait to see Jurgen Klinsmann’s rather impressive Teutonic squad short-circuit and fade away into the history books. Bravissimo to Italia! You deserved it fair and square and looked aggressive and hungry throughout. You looked like champions. But now, with all due respect to the Azzurri fans out there who may read this, I look forward to seeing Zizou and company resuming where they left off in ’98.

Jeb Bush and Katherine Harris Attempt to Topple Timbers

Sunday, using Miami FC as their tools to overthrow the Pacific Northwest's most forestry-conscious USL team, puppet masters Governor Jeb Bush and Representative Katherine Harris deployed various nefarious techniques, including brain-washing one otherwise loyal Timbers Army member to sport Miami Vice attire, to stage an overthrow of fourth place dominance that the Timbers have maintained for days.

Both Miami FC and the officials had obviously been taking in and learning from this year's World Cup, judging from all the cheating going on that was obvious to everyone watching save the ref--for which a Miami player thanked him with a blown kiss as the clock ticked down to the ninetieth minute. We were not without our secret weapons, however: The Army is developing a seductive tradition of insulting the opposing side by inviting them, to the tune of She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain, to shove various local icons up their ass. Hilarity invariably ensues. Go ahead, try it--and now try it with the names of Jeb Bush and Katherine Harris and see if that doesn't leave you with an ear-splitting silly grin on your face. And the Timbers themselves had Potl: that boy was on fire last night! Yes, I said it: Potl was on fire! (We really like Potl, but frankly he doesn't always have that kind of energy.) Last night he was man of the match. Luke Kreamalmeyer was trapped in a defender position and unable to summon the Force as he usually does, but the ridiculously handsome Scot Thompson made a save worthy of John Terry.

With several of our key players injured and the referee nursing a vision problem, the Timbers were unable to get the ball in the net (though oh how Guti tried to get that penalty called!) but the lads still showed us a good time to wash away the taste of World Cup disappointment and remind of us just how much fun it is to watch a ball get kicked round the pitch on a beautiful day. And as always, the greatest mascot--official or un--in the football world, Timber Jim, was on hand to shore up our flagging spirits.

The repeated diving, fouls, wasting time, and general bad vibes emanating from the Miami squad failed to snuff out the anarchic good vibes that the Timbers Army reveled in and spread throughout PGE Park with their customary leaderless liberalism. Miami may have won the battle 1-0 . . . but the Portland Timbers will always win the war for hearts and minds. Rose City Till I Die indeed!

This post written in collaboration with my a pretty move compatriot Lynda.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Portland Timbers Play PGE Park Tonight

Portland Timbers meet up with Miami at 6 pm tonight in PGE Park, their first home game in weeks. You haven't got a World Cup game to watch, it's a gorgeous day, so there's no excuse to not head down there and give them your support. Alas, it appears we won't see former Brazilian superstar Romario on the pitch tonight. Or will we? And it appears our brief trip to the top of the table couldn't last, but a win tonight will help us scale those heady peaks again.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

World Cup Blame Game

Oh boy, what a last couple of days. And everyone wants to blame someone. I know I do. But who? Well, Denis Campbell from the Guardian says "blame (the) players, not refs;" Steven Gerrard says the English players "will not blame Rooney" for today's valiant fiasco; Rob Smyth says "don't blame Ronaldo" for Rooney flipping out; announcer Clive Tyldesley says don't blame him for all the crappy commentary going around; human cyclone Diego Maradona blames FIFA for giving his friend the boot before yesterday's Argentina v Germany match; and upstanding gent Shawn Levy blames Sven for England's crash and burn today, then "the ugly, jejune, nationalistic, petty, obscene, vulgar, stupid and illiterate commentary" that followed, and then simply shuts the whole damn thing down until everyone regains their composure.

Ah, the Beautiful Game . . . . Can you feel the magic?

Dark Days, and Salvation Avec Les Bleus

These are dark days at a pretty move as one by one the teams we've attached ourselves to head home in tears. Argentina's loss yesterday--to our most disliked side in the tournament--was the breaking point for Derek and me (I still haven't been able to bring myself to watch the match on tape); for Lisa today it was England. Our emails say tentative things like how are you doing? are you holding up okay?, as though inquiring after the loss of loved ones (and so perhaps the neighbors will show up bearing casserole dishes!) or seethe with righteous anger and indignation. It's so much fun, we say, to be an American at the World Cup, because you aren't invested in the results the way you would be if you were from England or Spain or Argentina, because you won't get your heart broken, except you do anyway.

I have to remind myself: it always happens this way. In 2002 the Cup was effectively over for me when Senegal went out in the quarter-finals, although of course I never expected them to go all the way as I did Argentina. But after that it was just about watching how the rest of the matches played out, with no particular attachments or passions. And once again my World Cup ardor has cooled. I'm starting to think about club football again, and remind myself that you often get better (prettier!) matches there anyway, and find myself actually looking forward to getting back to a life that doesn't involve watching several hours of football most days, a life in which I can sleep in, go running, shop at the Saturday morning farmer's market.

Still, it's a struggle not to turn bitter. In particular, I have some thoughts I'm trying to shape into a coherent whole about the triumph of dull, defensive, conservative footballing over beauty and dignity (and if I hear Balboa praise one more diving player for "selling it!" or using the term "professional foul" again I may chuck the TV out the window) and the "winning is everything" mentality that values nothing else. And then, as Derek mentioned, over at the England blog Shawn's had to shut down comments thanks to virtual hooliganism--and I hear unpleasant reports from one local bar about frat boy types cheering on Germany against Argentine "beaners." Nice! So even though I feel mad and hurt and a little bit broken by how things are turning out, it's nothing new, and I don't want to turn around and realize I'm behaving like that kind of fan.

So, I am turning to Les Bleus now, putting aside my dismay over Thierry Henry's dive across Puyol* and focusing instead on the smiles bursting across the faces of Zidane and Barthez as they raced arm-in-arm toward the stands (one of my favorite shots of the tournament) after the Spain match, on the wonder of watching what this new kid Ribery has in him, on the great comeback story of the former champs humiliated in 2002. I'm going to have a good time watching France even if I can't get behind them with the same fervor I could some other teams.

We're all tired. Our nerves are frayed. The jolly it's-a-small-world atmosphere has given way to the harsh reality of failure and defeat. And in four years, we'll fling ourself with optimism into the carnival all over again, and it shouldn't be any other way.

*Has ever a player so quickly plummeted in my estimation as Thierry Henry? All year I thought him the very epitome of supercool, one of my favorites on and off the pitch. In two short months there was first the post-Barca tantrum, accompanied by--thank you, Scott Murray, for calling it what it was, his stupid casual misogyny--followed by his ungentlemanly blame laid on teammate Ribery, and finally the Puyol incident, which reminds me I need to send him a card congratulating him on his gender reassignment surgery.

A Little Thing Known As the Equator

Although I am merely lukewarm, at best, toward the England squad compared to my a pretty move compatriots*, it was terrible to see the faces of the English lads at the conclusion of the match, particularly those like Terry and Ferdinand who crumpled into tears. However, I'm sure Gerrard at least and probably several others will feel much better when someone takes them aside and explains that it will be winter, not summer, when they play the 2010 cup in South Africa. As I tuned in and out of the blather of the Balboa-O'Brien show (and all the football must be going to my brain, because I've grudgingly found a few things to appreciate about these announcers, although perhaps it's just some troubling variant of Stockholm Syndrome) I heard them talking about how Gerrard apparently mentioned that this could be England's last chance for a long time to win the Cup, since the heat at an African World Cup would clearly be even more challenging for the squad than it was this summer in Germany. And then Balboa and O'Brien agreed that yep, hoo-boy, that was gonna be a scorcher all right.

As the Professor said to the children in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, "I wonder what they do teach them in these schools."

Meanwhile, in Cape Town, the southernmost host city in the 2010 tournament, this week's forecast appears to call for mild and match-friendly ranges in the 50s and 60s, while the more northerly Pretoria ranges from the 30s to the 70s-all a far cry from Germany's humid 90s.

*I compare my feelings about this year's England team to cooking something that has lots of enticing ingredients but ends up tasting terrible. I've not yet figured out how you can take players I like as much as I do Gerrard, Joe Cole, Terry, Rooney, etc. and make from them a team so utterly lacking in charisma for me, but it is reminsicent of the time I followed a recipe which, to this day, Derek and I refer to as "Disappointment Soup."