Watching sports is, among other things, a special way of experiencing time. Sport is like music or fiction or film in that, for a predetermined duration, it asks you to give it control over your emotions, to feel what it makes you feel. Unlike (most) forms of art, though, a game has no foreordained plan or plot or intention. The rules of a game impose a certain kind of order, but it’s different from the order of an artwork. A movie knows where it wants to take you; no one can say in advance where a game will go. All of its beauty, ugliness, boredom, and excitement, all of its rage and sadness emerge spontaneously out of the players’ competing desires to win. For however long the clock runs, your feelings are at the mercy of chance. This happens and then this happens and then this happens. You’re experiencing, in a contained and intensified way, something like the everyday movement of life.
What a great team does, of course, is clarify uncertainty, and given the descent into anarchy that was the first three weeks of the tournament, it would be nice to have one great team just as a convenience. The thing about soccer, as opposed to, say, American football, is that hardly anyone ever really knows what it’s supposed to look like. You want one team to climb up to the mountaintop and hold forth a shining example of style for others to follow. Spain gave us tiki-taka, and, love it or hate it, it was at least an ethos. The history of the game moves forward with these revelations. At this World Cup, the glowing tablet is likely to read “SORT OF MORE COUNTERATTACKING THAN BEFORE BUT GOD KNOWS WHAT WE’RE DOING WITH THESE FULL-BACKS.” It might work, but it’s not exactly poetry.
What this World Cup has offered instead, and where it seems most likely to produce lasting memories, is superstars. I can’t remember a tournament that seemed to be more about individual players, both because of everything they have at stake and because of the influence they’ve had over outcomes. When Spain was Spain, as Barney Ronay recently wrote, “the ball was always the star.” In Brazil, we’ve seen game after game turn on individual moments of skill: Neymar pixie-dancing through 14 or 15 defenders, Arjen Robben scything to his left with the inevitability of death, Messi dragging entire defenses across the pitch like someone resizing a browser window.
1. Will Lionel Messi and/or Neymar hoist the dreams of their nations onto their tiny shoulders and carry them like precious gems over the towering mountains of destiny?
Look, pressure is a concept. It’s a state of mind. If you don’t feel it, it doesn’t exist, no matter what everyone else on the planet might say. If you can shrug it off, it’s gone, even if you’re an impish member of the FC Barcelona front line whose entire existence will be judged invalid by billions of people if you don’t all-but-single-handedly win the most scrutinized sporting event on the planet. If you’re just like, whoa, chill, pressure can’t touch you, even if that sporting event happens to revolve around a game that’s notoriously impossible for one person to control, even if the teams you’re expected to lead to glory each feature holes that any sane person could ID as the German shepherd–size pet doors through which doom crawls in after dark. If you just laugh and put life in perspective, you’ll feel fine, even if you happen to be the sole avatar and focal point of a country where there literally are no sane people, where losing at soccer is perceived as a crime somewhere between violent treason and playing bass for Nickelback. If you just crank that Bobby McF and put a big grin on your face, pressure will vanish, even if NO GET UP WHY ARE YOU FOAMING AT THE MOUTH OH GOD STOP WRITHING IT’S HORRIBLE PLEASE GET UUUUP.
I’ve been thinking a lot, during the ongoing the shell game of this World Cup season, about whether soccer can restore any of the damage that soccer abets and causes. I got to thinking about Pele and Garrincha, and what it would be like if the World Cup were less in the first player’s image and more in the second’s.
Pelé was the numbers superstar, the player who scored more goals and won more trophies than anybody else. Pelé was a winner. Garrincha was a loser who just happened to have this astounding gift. He was born with deformed legs; doctors didn’t know whether he’d ever walk properly. He became probably the greatest dribbler in soccer history. They used to call him Anjo das Pernas Tortas, the angel with crooked legs. His personal life was a wreck; he drank like he was bent on suicide, wrapped cars around stationary objects, fathered more than a dozen children. But he played with such joy. They called him that, too: the joy of the people. He would beat his defender on the wing, then dribble the ball back for the fun of beating him again. “People almost died laughing,” Eduardo Galeano wrote.
Paolo Di Canio is an insane fascist. I’m not trying to be inflammatory; these are simply words that describe Paolo Di Canio. He’s an insane fascist in the same way that he’s 45 and Italian and cadaverously thin. He’s an insane fascist in the same way that he’s lined and balding and the wearer of elongated sideburns that make him look like a Victorian railroad magnate. He’s an insane fascist in the same way that he’s an ex-soccer star and, as of this week, the recently fired ex-manager of the Premier League club Sunderland AFC.
Those earlier Arsenal teams did as they pleased, and not with the aristocratic gradualism of mid-2000s Milan or the oddly childish relentlessness of Barcelona. They just tore through you. They raced the ball up the pitch, fast but also somehow perfectly under control, and whipped it at the net. Then they gave it back to you. Then they took it from you and started again. They were an astonishing fusion of masterful and giddy. Wenger used to get on a high horse every once in a while about football as entertainment and value for the fan’s hard-earned shilling, but what stands out about those teams now is not simply that they were entertaining but that they were also in some way explanatory: They played soccer, a game whose disorder frequently verges on madness, at such a high level that you could watch them and understand the sport in a new way. They made sanity intensely compelling.
So you know the classic Landon Donovan drinking fountain photo? Turns out it’s not even the craziest image from the photo spread in which it first appeared. My new Grantland column revisits a very strange moment in American soccer history.
This last point can’t be emphasized enough. If there’s a crowning irony in American soccer during the MLS era, it’s that we were finally given a superstar, something we always wanted — only the superstar managed to embody almost everything about U.S. soccer culture that we were trying to escape. Soccer was seen as a soft, unmanly sport, a sort of dainty French teatime exercise for socialists, and our superstar made major career moves out of homesickness. Soccer was seen as hopelessly white-bread and suburban, forever entangled with minivans and juice boxes and parents with folding chairs, and our superstar was a white kid from the Inland Empire who looked like Dave Matthews and dressed like someone who owned Dave Matthews CDs. Soccer was seen as an electromagnet for faux-intellectual Europhiles and poseurs; here is an interview from May in which Donovan talks about how much he likes reading Rilke.
Over on Grantland, I have a preview of the Champions League final. Things it includes: a dramatization of the creation of the English language, a definitive guide to defending Arjen Robben, and a very lovely picture of a horse. Enjoy!
What made Alex Ferguson the definitive manager of the Premier League era wasn’t only the wins; it was also the way he embodied all the contradictions of modern football. Here’s my new Grantland column.
Seeing your future not only defeat your past, not only taunt your past, but drop your past from high above into the path of an oncoming sport-utility vehicle — try to imagine the sensation that gave me. To see your past lose all its defenses, to see it exposed as a naked, mortal, vulnerable thing. A moment ago I overheard a woman coming out of the Qdoba say to her companion, “That was one weird burrito bowl.” I have considered her words, and I have realized that, with the economy of a poet, she has described what the Champions League semifinal was for me.
Matt Le Tissier is coming out of retirement, and I’m going to type that again, because it contains words that deserve to be repeated. Matt Le Tissier is coming out of retirement. If you don’t know who that is — and there’s a good chance you don’t, if you’re American, not a soccer fan, or under 25 — watch the YouTube clip of him scoring against Newcastle on October 24, 1993. This is the second season of the Premier League, all lunging tackles and signboards for Street Fighter II. Le Tissier’s playing midfield for Southampton, the team in red-and-white stripes. The ball comes flying over the left flank to the Southampton striker, Iain Dowie, who heads it down toward the middle of the pitch, where Le Tissier’s running forward at a smooth trot. It’s a bad header; the ball scuds directly behind him. The move should be over. But watch what Le Tissier does….
I am a midlevel Hungarian gangster. You are a Finnish referee. So here’s how it works. I get a call from a lieutenant in the syndicate — not from Dan Tan himself, the boss has to be protected, but from a middle man somewhere in Asia. Maybe Singapore, where Dan Tan is based; maybe someplace else. The caller says: We need so-and-so to happen in such-and-such soccer game. So I fly to Helsinki from Budapest and take a train north to Tampere, where you’ll be officiating a match in the Ykkönen, the Finnish second division, between FC Ilves and FC Viikingit. We meet. It’s not as if I’m lugging a duffel full of cash. The money will be laundered; we have the systems in place. I want you to be comfortable, after all.
Abramovich is a week removed from sacking Roberto Di Matteo, a beloved former Chelsea player who managed the club for eight months and won both the FA Cup and the Champions League. You would have to be a self-deluding megalomaniac to see coaching Chelsea as anything other than a path to a short-term payoff. And Rafa has enacted the same bighorn-sheep-in-spring routine at every club he’s managed; you would have to be a self-deluding megalomaniac to hire him thinking he’d fall in line and do whatever you asked. So, yeah. Good thing neither of these guys is a megalomaniac, right?
I’m sick of Manchester United. In many ways, this is a compliment to Manchester United. When your emperor is cruel and merciless and rules from his twisted iron throne for like a million consecutive years, your pathetic longing for revolution is just proof that he’s great at oppressing you. If Manchester United weren’t permanently welded to the top or near-top of the Premier League table like the star on a Christmas tree no one throws out till May, I wouldn’t have had all this leisure time to accrue malevolent emotions toward their consistency and their stock prices and their players and their stupid face. Great job, Manchester United!
In other ways, however, this is not a compliment to Manchester United, because it is never a compliment when someone would rather see a goat, or Tottenham Hotspur, win the title over you. And the way I feel lately, if you rustled up a Siberian ibex that could score away at Stoke, I would wear its scarf every Saturday and cheer it on at the Theatre of Dreams. I would say the same thing about Tottenham Hotspur, but I’m trying to be realistic.
TOTALLY UNRELATED TO SOCCER: I wrote a few tweets about last night’s episode of Mad Men, then realized a million DVR-people would yell at me for spoiling it, so I moved them here. Read if you care. There are spoilers, duh.
Ever been tabbed to speak at someone’s going away party?
It’s a more exigent task than you’d imagine. It necessitates an examination of your relationship with that person yet simultaneously compels you to divorce yourself from it, because if you truly care about them, it becomes impossible not feel a little sad, a little hurt, a little abandoned that they’re moving on.
As the captain of a midtable side, I imagine Antonio Di Natale is well-versed in that conflict, at least in psyche if not actual practice. From David Pizarro to Vincenzo Iaquinta, Fabio Quagliarella to Alexis Sanchez, Di Natale has watched his contemporaries at Udinese saunter out the door for better opportunities at bigger clubs, leaving him to recite staid dialogue and dutifully hand out cake before shouldering another share of club’s ballast. Somewhere along the way, he became Sam Waterston in Law & Order, perpetually standing still as his recast cohorts drift further away from his date of birth but stubbornly refusing to start over someplace else. And — as is also the case with Waterston — you invariably stumble upon at least one Udinese match per season when you weren’t even looking for one, only to find Di Natale making one of his usual imperious runs through traffic and you incredulously blurting out things like, “Wait, he’s still there?!” and, “Doesn’t he have somewhere else better to be?”
Do you know what hate, in its essence and heart-wrenching ugliness, truly is? Not only the concept of genuinely disliking something with every fibre of your being, but the sensation of slowly falling into a black hole filled to its brink with unhealthy, dirty thoughts? It is a feeling that, when activated deep below our day-to-day, unextraordinary consciousness, completely robs us of our humanity and compassion. It brings out the worst in us. Basically, hatred is what keeps Turkish football in 2011-2012 alive.
Today, my newfound and football-crazed friends, we have reached the proverbial impasse. Regardless of what happens tonight at the Şükrü Saracoğlu Stadium in Kadıköy, Turkish football has lost its vigour. Papers were definitely pushed, Lira in great quantities were definitely suddenly found in sports bags where they did not quite belong, and the Turkish Football Federation has made a complete and utter mess of the proceedings and an even bigger ass of themselves. 10 people have been given jail sentences for bribing players, staff members, club officials in order to fix scores (“bought matches”, in layman terms). All the criminals acted, in one way or another, to give a certain club a certain edge, and yet said club has remained without judgement or penalty. So, in this final week of Turkish football in what will forever be known as a truly tainted season, quelle surprise, as Platini would say: It’s all about Fenerbahçe again, standing as ever in the spotlight and on their very own stage this time around, with Galatasaray trucking along on the ride in a supporting role.
It is January 25, 1939. You reside in what is left of Barcelona. The Spanish Civil War has raged for several years. At night, the bombs fall. Franco’s forces have surrounded and strangled your beloved city, Within, moral and societal decay have gripped the institutions you loved. At first, democracy was the war cry. Viva la Republica! Then, the anarchists arose and spoke of the need to collectivize, collectivize, collectivize. Then, the Stalinists sprang up and called for nationalization. The summary executions of suspected Franco sympathizers made you feel uneasy. Now, the anarchists and Stalinists shoot one another in broad daylight. Food and water have disappeared. Retreating Republic forces burn warehouses & offices before fleeing to France. When Franco’s forces arrive the next day, chills run up and down your spine. To your astonishment, people take to the streets and cheer and applaud and wave and welcome their arrival. You weep quietly.
It is April 26, 2012. You are Pep Guardiola. You are the coach of FC Barcelona, a team that has won three La Liga titles and two Champions League trophies in the last four years. Some injuries and bad luck derailed the current season, but plenty of talent lines the roster. The city adores your team, your players love you, and the best goalscoring machine in the world wears the Azulgrana #10. However, for the last few years, battles have raged behind the scenes. The President that hired you, Joan Laporta, has been sued by the current President Sandro Rossell for accounting irregularities. The same Sandro Rosell that sat at the Board of Directors for Barcelona but resigned in 2005 due to Laporta’s “authoritarian tendencies.” Rather than settling, the case went to trial. In sum, your current boss is running your ex-boss (who hired you) through the accounting grinder, even though hidden debt in Spain is as ubiquitous as sangria. At least Laporta took care of the tax man, unlike Atletico de Madrid. Your hair turns grey, then disappears. The next day, you announce your retirement.
Cue the End-of-an-Era music: Pep Guardiola has resigned. But from this vantage point what seems clear is that Pep’s departure, and all the accompanying verbiage — about the intensity of his personality, his perfectionism, the hardware his team has won over the past four years, the success of the Barcelona Way, Pep as the embodiment of the més que un club ethos, and on and on — are part of a vast mopping-up operation. The story really ended almost exactly a year ago, when El Clásico descended into melodrama and handbags. Barça hasn’t been the same since, and neither has Pep.
I wrote at the time that “if I were Emperor of Soccer, I’d not allow these clubs to play each other for a couple of years.” But really, the damage had already been done. Too many overwrought encounters in too short a time had left Barcelona, Real Madrid, the Spanish soccer culture, and, hell, the whole soccer world emotionally exhausted. What had been the most exciting clash of styles in forever became instead an exercise in discovering new forms of pettiness: diving, stomping, pre- and post-match posturing, even a combination cheek-tweak and eye-gouge.
Dick Clark is dead. As someone who expected to be outlived by him, it’s weird knowing he’s gone. At the same time, he was clearly an old man. Even though it seemed like he’d been around for longer than his 82 years, the most recent New Year’s was sad because…well, it was Dick Clark, except he wasn’t Dick Clark as everyone knew him. It finally seemed like it might’ve been time, as cruel as that is to say.
It never seemed like Frankie Hejduk’s time. No, he’s not dead, but he’s done playing soccer. The scraggly-haired wingback announced his retirement from professional soccer Thursday at the age of 37, which is pretty damn old for a professional soccer player. And it’s really damn old for someone who played like he was stuck in an imaginary hamster wheel—never not-running. It’s hard to imagine Frankie Hejduk not running for a living any more. It’s hard, too, to imagine American soccer without Frankie Hejduk.
Watching Swansea City play is like reading Proust. There are more than a few forgettable moments, scattered throughout longer moments of wandering beauty, sudden whimsy, and fluttering brilliance, seemingly going nowhere and seemingly without end. Everything builds and builds and builds without any obvious narrative structure. As the tension breaks their game becomes more sprawling, and more strange. It’s easy to get lost. Once lost, it’s easy to lose sense of time, and place. No team in the Premier League is as watchable and as unwatchable as Swansea. And no team inspires the depth of praise and breadth of indifference.
Earlier this season Swansea played Liverpool to a scoreless draw. The game was brilliant. Andy Carroll was comically feckless. So too was Liverpool’s midfield. Michel Vorm essentially attacked Liverpool’s forwards from his goal, which is an odd phrase and even odder thought, but there really isn’t another way to put it. The overwhelming presence of the ball in the midfield looked, from a distance, the way the game being played in the imagination of someone who’d never seen a game before, and only heard it described charitably, if not also a little wistfully.
Many years ago I attended an MLS game. It featured a forward who was having a shocker. Every time he got the ball, he lost it, either by having the opposition defenders take the ball off him, or by misplacing a pass. His team’s attacks would flounder as soon as he was brought into them. He did not create space by clever positioning or astute runs, he seemed to be a dead weight, bringing his team down. I asked my friend Eric, who was there with me, why the player was in the team at all. Eric replied, after acknowledging that the forward was having a bad game: “The thing about Taylor Twellman is that he’ll go through a meat grinder if he thinks there’s a goal on the other side.” And sure enough, there came a chance which Twellman pounced on. After a corner the ball was loose in the six yard box. Three defenders and the goalkeeper all threw themselves at the bouncing ball but Twellman got there first, the ball ricocheting off his shins into the goal, the defenders kicking nothing but air and Twellman’s legs.
I thought of Taylor Twellman when I saw Mario Gómez’s goal against Real Madrid in the Champions League semifinal. The ball entered the six-yard box and a couple of players threw themselves at the bouncing ball but Gómez got there first and got the winner. While I like Gómez, he seems like an especially decent guy and he helped my beloved Stuttgart to their most recent Bundesliga title, he is not the complete striking package. He does not hold the ball up well, his finishing is far from clinical, his dribbling skills do not keep defenders rooted to the spot and his first touch is decent, but not special. In fact, in most regards, Mario Gómez is decent, but not special. Except for the fact that he will go through a meat grinder if he thinks there is a goal on the other side.
Why are soccer players so bad at throw-ins? In any given soccer match the rate of throw-in failure is shockingly high. The problems come in three general varieties.
Excess of ambition. A teammate stands unmarked five yards from the thrower-in, so that nothing would be easier than to toss the ball at his feet, receive a one-touch return, and then construct a possession. But no. The ambitious thrower-in scorns so simple a solution. He spies, right at or just beyond the range of his throwing prowess, another teammate surrounded by three opposing players. Yes, that’s the ticket. He heaves the ball in that direction and the other team gratefully takes possession.
General lassitude. The thrower-in may be ready to do something sensible, but his teammates don’t give him a chance. They just stand around, usually too far away for him to throw the ball their way, keeping company with their markers. The thrower-in takes one hand off the ball to point them towards open spaces. Their chief response to this is to stare at him. After a few nervous moments one or two of them may slide an ineffectual yard this way or that. Eventually the ball gets tossed semi-randomly onto the pitch and the other team gratefully takes possession.
Paralysis by analysis. An extreme form of the hesitation induced by either of the prior circumstances. Sometimes the thrower-in just can’t make a decision, either because of his own ambition or his teammates’ lassitude or, in some few cases, a deep-seated psychic disability, possibly induced by early experiences in candy stores. Symptoms here include spasmodic and incomprehensible gestures with one hand, as the other clutches the ball; swift, panicky twisting of the neck, accompanied by bulging eyes; and a crab-like creeping up the pitch (the most common variation on which resembles a beginner’s attempt to tango). Eventually the ball gets tossed semi-randomly onto the pitch etc. etc.