Thursday, March 29, 2007

Newsflash: Maradona Indulges to Excess

You know how American celebrities are always admitted to the hospital for "exhaustion"? And sometimes it follows a "collapse"? Man, if only their publicists were this honest: Maradona admitted to hospital for over-indulgence. We here at a pretty move and doubtless everyone throughout the soccer world is shocked...shocked!

Friday, March 23, 2007

Soca Warriors Unionize

If you read a pretty move during its bout of World Cup fever, you may recall that I was a big fan of Trinidad and Tobago's Soca Warriors, and the spirit and joy they and their supporters took to Germany. Now the Warriors are going to court over their post-World Cup maltreatment. They are being fobbed off with payments totaling less than $1000 each, despite the fact that the T&T football federation is financed by none other than wealthy FIFA vice-president Jack Warner. This is by no means the first time footballers from nations with lower profiles in the soccer world have been treated this way. If there is truly little money to pay your athletes, and they go into tournaments knowing that's the case--well, that's one thing, but the stories rarely seem to play out the way. Much more often, as is the case here, promises are made with no intention of fulfilling them. Here's hoping the Soca Warriors get their day in court and justice reigns.

And while I'm seething with indignation about soccer injustices, here is a piece from earlier in the month about the challenges faced by the English national women's football team. This is a fantastic piece that I've been holding back on linking to because I wanted to write about it in the context of a more substantial post on women in the footballing world. However, I haven't had time to devote to a substantial post in a while, so this will have to do for now. A few months ago I remember reading some comments on a Guardian blog, perhaps in response to remarks by the misogynistic and now-unemployed (huzzah!) ex-Luton manager Mike Newell but perhaps about something else--at any rate, they were to the effect of "Have you ever watched the English women's team--it's hilarious how rubbish they are! No wonder no one cares about women's football!" So hilarious that, as they say, I forgot to laugh--particularly after reading about the crap food, crap training, players juggling their international duties with full-time jobs, and nonexistent support for families.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Hat Trick at the Camp Nou Corral

The funny thing about soccer is that, as many others have pointed out before me, watching it live is kind of an exercise in masochism. It's rarely what you'd call fun: because a lead can vanish or appear so suddenly, it is often ninety minutes of sheer agony punctuated with moments of ecstasy or grace, which can be gone again just as quickly. When kid dynamo Leo Messi kissed the crest on his Barca jersey following his third goal in the crucial closing minutes of the match--that was one of those moments. The goal itself--I screamed, I laughed, I jumped around the room, and, uh, I think I got something in my eye.

I have to go back and rewatch the match on tape, because I missed parts of the second half. The prospect of watching Barca go down for the third time in a week broke me. I couldn't sit still, I paced, and finally I scrubbed the bathroom floor, running up and down the hall to check out the action according to the noises Derek was making. My bathroom is really clean now.

I hate players and managers and fans who whinge on and on about unfairness when top teams don't win (on the other hand, if you are a supporter of, say, not-top teams like West Ham or the Portland Timbers, whinge away: you probably are hard done by). It smacks of poor sportsmanship and entitlement, and yet I was going to moan hypocritically here. Of course I thought the ref was dreadful; of course I feel robbed--I'm a Barca supporter, and over the ninety minutes of the match the accusations I sputtered at the ref (and wouldn't you know, he didn't seem to hear a word I said) would have done any Italian football conspiracist proud. But I thought I'd take a page instead from Linda and let it go (now that I've conveniently given you the condensed version). It was a stunner of a match, individual Barca players made some mistakes but on the whole the team played beautifully, and I felt like the squad I knew was back.

Did you see? Did you see that gorgeous footwork from the likes of Iniesta and Messi, the heroic defending, the courageous attacks, even with one man down? And let's not forget the brave performance of a crippled Real Madrid squad, either, who battled with more skill and spirit than most of us expected from a team with so many on the injured list. What a Clásico! What a debut from young Leo! Oh, what a squad--Més que un club indeed!

Thursday, March 08, 2007

The Wrong Inheritors

I loved David Winner's book Brilliant Orange--an idiosyncratic yet endearing tribute to the sometimes surreal world of Dutch football, and in particular the fabled World Cup '74 burnouts led by Johan Cruyff--and heartily recommend it to anyone out there. But I'm absolutely confused by this piece in The Guardian from yesterday, wherein Winner claims that the inheritors to Rinus Michels' alchemical brand of creative play are... Arsenal. Perhaps I've just been watching some other team that calls themselves the Gunners, but that proclamation seems insane to me. Have I been misunderstanding the basic ideas surrounding the idea of Total Football? No offense to my friends who support Arsenal, but whatever elements of TF that Wenger utilizes in games seems circumspect and superficial. However glamorous and formidable the Gunners seem on paper--and they are impressive at times--the team consistently revert to boring, conservative play (4-5-1 anyone?) on the pitch more so than not.

Am I completely misinformed here?

I admit my bias for Barcelona, and the team's connection with Dutch players and tactical ideas has been strong for decades. But it really does seem more appropriate to view them as the true inheritors of the TF system. Even then... Rijkaard's version of TF is still a modified version of the free-flowing theory. But it's the closest thing we've got.

I'll have to think about it some more. In the meantime, you can read Mr Winner's views on the matter here.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

the joys of infidelity

I think it was during the World Cup that there was some heated on-line discussion about the ethics of cheering more than one team. Does it brand you a turncoat? a fair-weather friend? a dilletante? Shallow? The consensus here at a pretty move at the time was that we, as Americans, are almost necessarily youthful in our football passions, and therefore free to throw our love around liberally and without guilt as if it were hippy-days in the Haight. Something akin to that. We're in love with the lovely goal, the graceful maneuver, the beautiful moment, unabashedly so, and will sing the praises of such, regardless of the color of the kit involved.

Still, we have our favorites. None of us shy from trumpeting our collective Barca-love, two-thirds of us are proud to wear the claret-and-blue of the West Ham supporter, and I have always harbored a quiet but passionate amour for Liverpool. In the wake of the West Ham v Liverpool FA Cup final and today's Barca v Liverpool Champions knockout, I can tell you this: there are few pleasures greater than watching two teams you genuinely love vying for an important win. It blends ecstasy and melancholy in the sweetest possible ways. One knows every man on the pitch well enough to enjoy heightened emotions at nearly every turn.

Much as I hate a Barca loss, Liverpool made me proud today. They emerged from the tunnel with the aggregate edge but the underdog's uncertainty, and how many sides (I'm looking at you, Arsenal) would have locked down into an ugly night of pure defense and playing it safe? Not these fine Liverpudlians. They came out walloping and kept it up; it was only by the whimsy and caprice of the Football Gods that Riise didn't score in those first minutes. How many was it? Three times he blasted a beauty toward the goal to see it deflected by the bar, or a defender, or possibly the invisible hand of the Football God? Same for Sissoko's long 32nd-minute shot off the bar, and, for that matter, Ronaldinho's, later on. The Gods were having great laughs up their godlike sleeves on the touchline all night.

This is the first I've seen of Liverpool this year, and if I was initially uncertain about the new backfield, they set my mind at ease within minutes. Those fellows are lovely. And talk about a great backfield: when Rijkaard pulled Thuram--Thuram!--to send on Gudjohnsen, it was a stroke of genius. It didn't even feel like a risk to me, because he still had Marquez and the Armored Saint watching the goal. (Did you see Puyol clear the end of that fierce Liverpool attack right off the line? Classic.) And it paid off, almost immediately, but not enough.

Therein lies the melancholy in the mix. What will become of our beloved Barca? Will this beautiful squad disentangle one from another and dissipate across the hemispheres, each man wearing different colors? During the pre-match when the starting eleven flashed on the screen I said to my mother (who, thank God, has ESPN), "You will never see a better starting line-up than that, if you were to watch football every day for the rest of your life." Then I thought of the fellows waiting in the wings to come on (Giuly! Zambrotta! Gudjohnsen! Gio!) and got real chills. So why did the life never manifest? Messi was penned in (artfully, I must say) beneath some skintight marking by Arbeloa. Eto'o never found his way to that sweet spot up front, and neither Deco nor Ronaldinho roused up to full force. Early on I was nursing a theory that Ronaldinho was playing possum, lulling his normally fierce markers into inattention, but if so, the plan never came to fruition.

In any case, there it is. Barca is out; Liverpool continues. I mourn and I exult. The King has fallen; long live the King. My life is a happier one for having the opportunity to watch these fine sides play, and I steadfastly recommend refusing to follow only one.

We Won! Oh, Wait....

Despite Barcelona winning 0-1 against Liverpool at Anfield, a goal courtesy of second half replacement Eidur Gudjohnsen, Barca have been knocked out of the Champions League due to the away goals rule (Liverpool scored twice at the Camp Nou last week in the first leg).


We still have the league, though. Sort of.

Chelsea, Roma, and Valencia also move into the next round. Glad to see Spanish club Valencia squeak through, an underrated side that could bring a few surprises to their next opponent.

But it just won't be the same.


Monday, March 05, 2007

Fit to Wear the Colors

Despite more depressing news coming out--though hardly surprising--that the Hammers squad is indeed falling apart behind closed doors, and the looming possible penalties (financial and the dreaded points reduction) that the league may hand down this week in regards to the Mascherano/Tevez trade, the team still can't pull off a win. Again, not surprising.

But the Hammers played with genuine conviction Sunday (especially Tevez, Noble, Zamora, Konchesky, and Green) and almost pulled off the biggest win of the season. Alas, it wasn't meant to be. West Ham were up 2-0 at the half, but they simply couldn't hold onto the lead. Lee Bowyer stupidly took down Aaron Lennon in the box in the 50th minute, giving Tottenham a penalty kick opportunity, which they indeed claimed courtesy of Jermaine Defoe. Hammers' keeper Robert Green's luck and skill at post (he had some remarkable saves earlier on) vanished at that point and the game was on.

Anyone who watched knows how topsy-turvy the proceedings got. Tottenham scored again in the 63rd to even things up, then West Ham jumped ahead in the 85th (Tevez sailed a stunning free kick into the box for Zamora to head in), and I was actually pretty sure that the Hammers were thankfully going to pull the win off. The season may be doomed, but the win... ah, the win was ours!

Bullshit. The scatter shot defense returned and the inability to navigate through the pressure as well. Tottenham scored twice in two minutes and took the win. They deserved the win.

But plenty of the players on West Ham showed courage yesterday (Tevez, Green, Noble, Konchesky), proving that they deserved to wear the colors. And if the sight of Tevez freaking out after claiming his first goal for the club, diving into the crowd and into the arms of the faithful supporters who rabidly stand by their team even as relegation Armageddon looms, doesn't bloom a little sympathy for the Hammers' plight, then I'm not sure I want to know you. It was a beautiful moment, and one that I'll remember for a long time. But damn, I can't wait to forget the burnout that defined the rest of the season. Awful, simply awful.

I wonder if West Ham manager Alan Curbishley is tired of all these votes of confidence that team chairman Eggert Magnusson (aka The Elf) keeps burdening... I mean lauding upon him?

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Beyond the Pitch, A Troubled World

Two Barca players talk politics and more. Defender Lilian Thuram speaks out against the cynicism of politicians on the left and right and remembers the impoverished circumstances of his youth.

On his legendary goals against Croatia in the 1998 World Cup that set the stage for France's victory:

It was what I call my Miles Davis moment...Footballers can be like artists when the mind and body are working as one. It is what Miles Davis does when he plays free jazz - everything pulls together into one intense moment that is beautiful. He doesn't have to think about it; it's pure instinct.

And on the failed 2001 attempt at a reconciliation match between France and Algeria:

With tears in his eyes, Thuram ran from the pitch, charging straight to the dressing room without speaking to anyone. 'What happened that night was a disaster,' he says. 'It was as if everything I have ever believed in was wrong. I hoped, and still hope, that races can live together, but that night I saw such anger and hatred that it made me afraid for the future.'

And Barca right-back, Catalan nationalist, and all-around political activist Oleguer--who drives not a fancy sports car, but a van--suffers for his stand taken against the Spanish judicial system, but reminds us

'If we want a better world, we all need to roll up our sleeves. It's easy to moan to your friends and then do nothing. The consequences I suffer are nothing compared to what many people go through.'
Even on the heels of yesterday's disastrous outing against Seville (and what the hell was the deal with the red card against Guily? Are they giving those out for breathing too hard in the other guy's direction now?), man, do I love this team.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Wiping the Cobwebs from My Eyes

Like the masochist that I am . . . I will be watching the West Ham v Tottenham match Sunday morning. And I too have finally come to the realization that the Hammers are going to be relegated. But thank you Mr Brand for reminding me of why that team matters.

You can read more about being doomed with West Ham here.