Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Can't We All Just Be....Oh, Screw It!

Twelve minutes into the second half of the second leg of the Copa del Rey match between arch-rivals Real Betis and Sevilla, chaos bloomed. The silky-footed Frederic Kanoute scored in the 57th, breaking the 0-0 tie, but before the players could finish their celebrations, projectiles rained down upon the pitch and Sevilla's head coach Juande Ramos was struck in the back of the head with a bottle. As players, staff, and police scrambled around the unconscious Ramos--who was then stretchered off the pitch and into the locker rooms--it was obvious that the safety of the players, and everyone else for that matter, could not be guaranteed and the match was called off. I bet the programmers at GolTV love it when that happens.

You can read more about the incident here.

Luckily the second leg Copa match between Barcelona and Zaragoza went off a lot better. Barca, who are still redeeming themselves after last week's dreadful (though historically consistent when facing Liverpool) Champions League match against The Reds, returned to their united fleet-footed witchery and knocked Zaragoza out of the cup with a 2-1 win. There were a few ridiculous moments (Hey, Messi, I'm looking at you! D'Alessandro! Where the $@!% are you going?!) but Barca dazzled with some nifty passing courtesy of Iniesta, Xavi, and Marquez. Iniesta and Xavi also supplied both goals. Good match, good form, and no one got hurt, although there was plenty of rambunctious flailing about. Messi, get back over here! Okay, okay, I saw the footage. You did get head-butted. But. . . .

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

We Need a Bigger Couch

It's been awhile since we've posted anything (mostly due to . . . uh, life intruding upon the fantasy that is football), but the two matches I did manage to see this week so far (the melodramatic Carling Cup final between Chelsea and Arsenal and today's FA Cup 5th round replay between Reading and Man U) were brilliant.

What happened today? In the opening six minutes Manchester United, with their silky yet suspiciously robotic killer instincts on full display, managed to score three goals and arguably seal the deal. But Reading player Dave Kitson scored a committed header in the 23rd minute, and though I wasn't convinced that Reading could pull off an upset, I was happy that at least they weren't going to crawl under the porch without a snap of the jaws or two.

But in the second half, the Reading team did a whole lot more. With the inclusion of Glen Little and Leroy Lita, the squad consistently outplayed the big red machine and threatened to even up the score after Lita helped make the seemingly impossible possible in the 84th. Sir Alex, who had been confident enough not to play either Rooney or Christiano Ronaldo for most of the match, capitulated and put both players into the fray in the 76th and 89th minutes respectively to sustain the lead. And though Reading threatened, they unfortunately couldn't pull off an upset. But it was nevertheless exhilarating and I almost flipped over our couch while still seated in it.

Manchester United now face Middlesbrough in the quarter-finals.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Silence in the San Siro

When the Serie A scandal erupted last spring in Italy, it seemed for a few weeks as though the fat cats at the heart of some of the worst match fixing--and if what I've read elsewhere is to be believed, match-fixing is almost endemic at all levels of the Italian game--might finally be punished, and soccer might flourish anew. After a great deal of sound and fury that ultimately amounted to very little, the real losers ended up being the fans, and top-level players like Gianluigi Buffon and Pavel Nedved who made the difficult decision to remain with Juventus despite its relegation to Serie B.

Only this season have I begun to nurture an appreciation for il calcio, for the quintessentially Italian take on the game, complete with all of the theatre and much of the corruption one might expect. I hoped that the bad old days might be left behind, despite the fact that most of the punishments meted out amounted to wrist slaps. But the news that has trickled out of Italy this past week has gone from bad to worse, from a story about an official murdered at an amateur match to the death of policeman Filippo Raciti in the rioting outside the stadium during a game between the Sicilian cities of Catania and Palermo, reported first as though it occurred in the course of the melee and only later describing him as specifically targeted by a group of Ultras for having testified against them.

Italy's immediate cancellation of all matches must have been devastating for the fans, but it also seemed a sign that the country might finally be taking its problems with soccer violence seriously. This weekend teams throughout the country will play again, but with only six stadiums meeting newly announced standards, most--including Ronaldo on his AC Milan debut--will play before silent, empty seats. I am a novice when it comes to matters of Italian football, but I'm not convinced this and other measures will put an end to the violence. Part of the problem, of course, is age-old hatreds, grudges that long predate the arrival of il calcio, but there is also the problem of the Ultras. Not all of the Ultras, of course--as always, the peaceful supporters end up tarred with the same brush as the troublemakers. But can the measures put in place succeed as long as the Ultras continue to command the power they do over the clubs? This Guardian writer thinks it's a step in the right direction; I am somewhat less optimistic, because I'm simply not convinced that the powers-that-be mean it this time.

My other concern is the fact that empty stadiums, or stadiums packed with only home crowds, will not prevent "fans" from battling it out in the streets, which was the problem at the match in Sicily.

During the World Cup we swiped a bit of shorthand from both the football anthology My Favorite Year--in which Tim Parks describes his Italian father-in-law's needs for long, solitary walks when his team lost--and from the opening pages of Joe McGinniss's The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, in which the Major he meets at a train station goes out for a walk following a match and . . . well, you'll just have to read the book yourself to find out what happens. But these walks, they became our shorthand for moments when the pain of a defeat was too great, when we no longer felt like knocking back another pint and arguing about formations and bad calls but simply needed to be alone for a while to contemplate the existential pain of being a football fan. I am thinking of football fans across Italy who will not be allowed in their stadiums this weekend, the tumultous times that doubtless still lay ahead, and I am imagining that, win or lose, there might be more than the usual number of long, contemplative walks ahead for the lovers of the game.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

The 36th Chamber of QPR

This was not the Beautiful Game. Nonetheless, I'd have paid good money yesterday to see this mad monkey kung fu brawl between the Chinese Olympic football team and West London ruffians Queens Park Rangers FC. Did no one suspect mayhem when the master killer himself Gordon Liu materialized on the pitch as the Twelfth Man? And to think we thought Shaolin Soccer was just a movie fever dream.

You can read more about the insanity here via The Guardian.

Anything But Friendly

The ongoing rivalry between the Mexican national team and the US team cranked up another few notches this evening in favor of Uncle Sam’s army of underachievers, with a 0-2 win that will no doubt make it that much easier to strike that “interim” tag from coach Bob Bradley’s title. The first half was a dreary affair, with Mexico gaining a slight advantage in terms of possession and shot opportunities. But that all changed in the second half when the US came out reinvigorated and defender Jimmy Conrad headed one in off a Landon Donovan corner kick. Mexico looked far from giving in, though, and second half substitutions Omar Bravo, Jose Fonseca, and Adolfo Bautista all contributed to or had viable shooting chances. Then in the 90th minute the US cemented their win with a Landon Donovan goal off of a Ricardo Clark pass in midfield (which originated from a deflection off referee Mauricio Navarro’s feet!). A brutal finish to what ended up being a rather entertaining match.

And earlier today in Manchester, England, Steve McClaren’s inflated Three Lions braggarts failed to do anything interesting against the lads from Spain. Midfielder Andres Iniesta (who was subbed in early in the second half) scored a brilliant long-range shot in the 63rd minute, earning the FC Barcelona player his first goal for the national team in eight appearances and the game winner to boot. The quick-footed and even quicker thinking player has become one of my favorite members of Barca this season and I’m glad to see the youngster’s good form for the Catalans translate to the national team. I’d bet serious money that the majority of the crowd packed into Old Trafford had no idea who the crafty Iniesta was before the match. But by the end of it, many in the crowd were no doubt muttering the Pale One’s name in between their curses, shouts, and boos directed at McClaren and his reptilian smile. Spain victorious 0-1.