Saturday, December 29, 2007

West Ham v. Manchester United

Game Review

Rating: ***1/2 (out of four)

Media of Choice: Setanta Sports, BBC Live Scores.

Shortly before Manchester United kicked off against the Hammers at Upton Park, I silently ruminated on Setanta’s policy of broadcasting live scores from other games in the PL during the main event. It’s kowtowing to the punters I thought to myself, a bit angrily. After all, sometime in the wee hours of the morning Setanta might rebroadcast my little midlands club visiting the Mecca of football, the JJB, and I might not want to know the score beforehand to preserve the 'mystery'. The next two hours proved me wrong, and how.

West Ham’s likely but unlikely victory at Upton Park was indeed a glorious game for the neutral; the play was neat and tidy, space opened up readily for the home side, some great chances were wasted by the Hammers in the first half, then a master-class goal from Ronaldo, a master-class missed penalty from Ronaldo, and two wonderful second-half set-piece goals from Anton Ferdinand (thank Christ Setanta didn’t play up the whole ‘brothers’ thing, everyone knows Rio was adopted from a Mongolian orphanage) and Matthew Upson to cap a deserved win. Details on this exciting victory can be found anywhere, let’s choose here.

But what really got the blood flowing on the day was the live score ticker. At first things seemed to be pretty normal, Chelsea up one-nil, Reading sneaking a goal and then getting pegged back at White Hart Lane, Villa (bloody f*cking Villa!!) and their annual Christmas Collapse, going down one-nil to TITUS BRAMBLE *endless sigh* at the JJB.

Then all hell seemed to break lose. Suddenly I wanted to have the entire Premier League Saturday fixture line-up on one screen – Sunderland putting a second goal past Bolton, Boro going one up against Portsmouth (good for Villa), second half fury, Villa equalizing, a ping-pong exchange between Reading and Spurs ending up at 4-4, then 5-4, then 6-4 Spurs, Agbonlahor putting Villa ahead, the ticker was going crazy, so crazy it started to screw up and update old scores twice. Suddenly West Ham v. Manchester United seemed boring in comparison with the yellow and back flippy sign-post thing in the top left-hand corner of the screen. So I take it back Setanta; ruin away. It’s not like I don’t cave immediately after coming home and check the interweb anyway.

(Editor's Note: Please spare a few thoughts for the family of Phil O'Donnell, Motherwell captain, who collapsed and died today after Motherwell played Dundee United. He was by all accounts a stand-up Scot who made his team, his country, and most importantly, his family, proud. He will be missed.)

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Super Clasico v. Gol TV

Real and Barca dance the night away this weekend and now I’m debating whether or not to subscribe to Gol TV. While my viewing habits tend to lean toward the Prem and all things English, I believe La Liga is pound-for-pound (monetarily speaking of course) the better league. Period. The play is better, the fixtures more exciting, the atmosphere brilliant. So dear non-existent reader, why would I hesitate in getting the premier station for La Liga fixtures throughout the year?

His name is Ray Hudson. Many people love him, mostly Americans who can’t sustain interest in football without having a few forced, glory-hunting signature phrases attached to even the most mundane of plays. He is identified on his wikipedia page as a ‘color commentator,’ a uniquely American contrivance that suits the American need to have sports mashed in your face like a handful of lit cigarettes. His accent, which is somewhere between Scottish and Dutch, is forced through his maw like a bowling ball in a wood chipper, and it blares out constantly throughout the game, interrupting developing action with ‘hhurs!’ and ‘watch-outs!’ like a suburban father monitoring his rambunctious children while snorting line after line of crystal meth off the picnic table.

Sometimes I daydream and imagine him leading a Gallery tour in La Musee D’Orsay, “Ach, that Mattisse is magisterial in his motions, WATCH OUT!! Those brush-strokes slice through the canvas like a ninja-star through a potato!” I would take that tour. But would I pay to hear him wax on like a banshee through the Super Clasico? Cable is expensive enough, and as yesterday’s post points out I don’t need anymore reasons to dislike football. Maybe I could turn the sound off and listen to Charlton Heston read from Leviticus. At least it would be more subtle.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Dirty Rotten Footballers

I’m heading through Nick Hornby’s ‘My Favourite Year’ right now and it’s a great read, although sad in a way. It details a love and respect for the great, good, and ordinary men of football, players who plied a lucrative trade but had a good sense of candour and respect for their position. Yesterday, revelations surfaced that a Manchester United player had been accused of rape after a cash-laced boozer at a posh hotel. It’s tempting to give in to the curmudgeonly attitude that everything was better in the old days when players had respect for their club, their fans and their status as men paid wages many times greater than those of the vast majority of their supporters to play a game we all dearly love. It’s easy to forget the George Best’s of the world, players who crumbled under the weight of their astronomical talents, driven to drink by the daily pressures of their exalted status. But the behaviour exhibited of late by players of the likes of Anton Ferdinand, Joey Barton, and now Jonny Evans, hardly star players, reflects a disturbing trend among the new generation of young, spoiled, overproduced and overhyped footballers.

That a player was accused of rape is shameful. Yet more shameful is the behaviour of Manchester United’s first team, rolling about town like a bunch of rowdy CEOs on a tear – what’s ten or twenty thousand pounds on a good time when most human beings can’t afford enough to feed or clothe themselves, to even buy a book or a football? Surely we deserve it, we’ve put in our dues after the umpteenth stage-managed charity event, we deserve to live like glutinous savages, our almighty and superior ability earned us that right. And Sol Cambpell has the audacity today to talk about footballers’ ‘human rights’, that players should be shielded from the opinions of fans who live only for the game and their club. And Jaime Carragher won’t play for his nation because, lo and behold, England fans have the gall to expect some respect and quality in return for the privilege to wear the shirt with the Three Lions. What has happened? What has changed? Where did this gross and wildly-inflated sense of entitlement come from?

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Liverpool vs. Manchester United

Game Review

Rating: *1/2 (out of four)

Medium of Choice: Setanta Sports

And so here it was, the Grand Slam Weekend we were supposed to be ‘salivating’ over, that was to single-handedly determine the title race about five and a half months in advance, that was supposed to showcase the ‘best’ teams in the ‘best league in the world.’

I sat eagerly in my living room at eight-thirty in the morning awaiting Manchester United versus Liverpool, patting myself vigorously on the back for subscribing to Setanta while Grand Slam Weekend: Weather Edition plopped 25 centimetres of snow on my tiny, defenceless street. Agonizing trips to the local café to watch Premiership marquee match-ups during my snow-jobbed days living in Montreal were a distant memory. And so sitting there, coffee in hand as the blowing snow rattled my bay windows, pumped, primed, ready to go, I boldly predicted an offensively barren and ultimately unrevealing 1-1. I was a goal off the mark.

Manchester United, much as they did in that other ‘marquee match-up’ this year against Arsenal, scored against the run of play. At around the twenty-twenty-five minute mark, a short corner found Rooney twenty-five yards out from the defensive scrum, who hit the ball toward goal. It found Tevez, who wildly back-heeled the ball in the roof of the net in what seemed to be a ludicrously offside position until the replays showed an almost bored-looking Benayoun covering the near-post.

At that point, I was on my second cup and thought to myself, ‘okay, here we go, game on, things will open up, goals galore, on the break, dead balls, whatever.’ But Liverpool have a way of sending out ESP messages to all who watch them – we will not win, not even equalize, even though we will have two-thirds possession and basically set up camp in the United half. And yet I humoured them, most of all Babel who came on for Shanking-Kewell and seemed on a mission to prove things would have gone better had he started. I watched and watched as my coffee went down, as the weather got worse, it was pointless I knew, but this was the Grand Slam for God’s sake. Pity Gerrard, who needs about ten yards of space to get a ball on target. Pity Riise, who just needs that f*cking ball on his left foot. Pity Crouch, who may get one out of every twenty headers he wins on target. Most of all, pity Benitez, who, try as he might, will never win the league.

As for United, well, they play secure football yes, Giggsy, Wazza and all that. Anderson who made me want to pull each jerry-curled beauty right off his head. God. Vidic. Why do I hate them so much? Credit though the gritty four-four two, Holy Wes Brown, Blessed Ferdinand, The Right Reverend Hargreaves, as they Honourably and Without Sin held the back line. It’s a simple formula, but as Fergie often shows sometimes it takes a bit of that old stuffy British four-four-two to win out over tactical intelligence.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Idle Workman

A common problem: the job. Here in North America we’re five hours behind the football action even if we’re light-years ahead on movie releases and obscene cultural trends. Ergo a Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday sometimes-Thursday-if-the-UEFA-Cup-tie-is-remotely-interesting fixture kick-off is three pm Eastern Standard time. For many among us three pm is that point in our workday where thoughts of suicide ping around our heads like wayward backpasses. Some have the luxury of closing an office door, paying about ten bucks and watching the whole match streamed for two hours on the desktop. These people are called bastards. Suckers like me work out in the open among the heathen so I have to carefully avoid earnest inquiries from fellow employees. But I should count myself lucky; those of us who work where there are no computers or televisions have the tricky task of avoiding the score blabbed out from ecstatic friends on the way home to watch the evening repeats.

So what can one do? People used to find my footballing interest quaint and cute until they noticed me drop off from doing pretty much anything for a few hours in the middle of the week except press refresh on a browser. Sometimes unwelcome interest can come in other forms. The more-than-inquisitive glances I received with my wild, silent fist pumping when Villa went up four-one up on Spurs comes to mind, as well as the audible gasps at the sight of my head banging up and down on my desk when Tottenham came back to make it 4-4. I could quit my job and move to England as a homeless vagabond roaming from ground to ground, pub to pub, sometimes hitching a ride to Spain for the more entertaining La Liga fixtures. But I would miss my girlfriend, the ordered-in Thai food, showers. Plus I couldn’t stand to be in a football culture, with page after page of newsprint dedicated to the sport, active pub-chat about the Shearer’s balls, and constant ribbing for my Villa supporting. I prefer the isolation of the lone football convert in a sea of hockey-heads. At least no one tries to console you when you get Manchester United in the FA cup draw for the second f*cking year in a row.

So for now I’m stuck walking the thin line between gross incompetence and passive neglect. Any advice in this regard, from anyone at all, anywhere, (does anyone read this guff?) would be appreciated. I’m too young to be fired. Plus I wouldn’t be able to afford my Setanta subscription.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Rangers v. Lyon

Game Review
Rating: *** (out of four)
Medium of Choice: ESPN Gamecast Live Updates

Pity Gers. Is it right and just that Celtic limply lose in Milan and ooze through to the last sixteen while Rangers, who only had to beat resurgent Lyon at the scabby hell-hole that is Ibrox, get hided three-nil and knocked out? Well yes actually. Benzema was the player of the night, who tore all sorts of strips off the well-organized but cynical Presbyterians. Rangers worked possession well in spots, particularly at the start of the second half, but in their desperation conceded two to Benzema at the death and sealed their fate.

All in all it was a fun scrap. Govou’s opener silenced the infamous 17th man at Fortress Ibrox, and then Rangers suddenly had to do something they so dearly hate: go and score a goal or two at home. From that point it was a bouncey affair, with a few sterling chances headed Lyon’s way and one for Darcheville too. I left before the last bit came, and the scoreline may have been a harsh on Walter Smith’s side even with Lyon’s chances, but if you score you score. Rangers will have to swallow this one at least until Celtic loses 6-0 in the first leg of the round of 16.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Is Fabio Fabio?

All sights are set on stunning as Fabio Capello, the Italian Maestro and winner of a couple of dud scudettos with Juventus, is first in-line to take the *ahem* ‘coveted’ England job. Having lost all credibility with his measly nine league titles in sixteen years coaching and having been quite reasonably fired after winning La Liga in exciting fashion (tsk tsk!) with that little club Real Madrid, he is reduced to begging footballing mastermind and twatty-mustache aficionado Brian Barwick to be England boss. Pathetic. How could the FA be so blind when they have the likes of former Saints manager Harry ‘Jailbird’ Redknapp or Big ‘Flop’ Sam Allardyce to choose from? Who needs tactical know-how and a sturdy defence when there’s the hard tackle and the long ball? ‘Football, bloody hell!’ indeed.

Ah England. Never has so much bile been poured by so many on so few. Lakes of ink have been spilled on the woes of this international side since the halcyon days of Syd Barrett and Rubber Soul, decent LSD and even more decent mortgage rates. And the reason is simple, like that awesome burrito I had a few months back, wonderful memories can also be a great source of angst and yearning. Who can forget the fake goal, Geoff Hurst’s thwacking the fourth to take it all home, and Sir Bobby waving the Jules Rimet in front of the Queen’s nose? The answer is anyone under forty years old who isn’t youtube-obsessed likely. Most of the kids today don’t have time for the nobly boring tradition of international football, what with their video games and their music and their pogs. Perhaps Fabio and his Italianate football will generate a new-found pride in the English national team. Perhaps instead of noble quarter-final exits, we’ll get a few noble semi-final exits instead. Only time, just under three years, will tell.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Marseille v. Liverpool

Game Review
** (out of four)
Medium of Choice: Guardian Unlimited Minute-by-Minute Report

While the broadcasters at the Beebs have called this a ‘masterpiece’ from Liverpool, I can’t say that it was at all as entertaining as it could have been. Liverpool of course needed a win or a draw-if-Besiktas-the-corrupt-Shower-from-Turkey-were-to-beat-Porto to advance to the final 16 of the Champions League. Marseille, who have been undefeated in their last four league matches, were touted as a tricky arch nemesis hoping to do a double on the Jekyll n’ Hyders from Merseyside who lost 3-1 to Reading on the weekend. It had all the potential of rich Scouse humiliation and that priceless look from Gerrard to Benitez that says, “I’m leaving in the summer. No one understands my genius.”

It was a fast paced opening; Gerrard was judged to have been fouled and a penalty given, which was first missed and then placed back where it belonged in short order, much like me trying to throw that half-eaten banana in the garbage at home few weeks back. Then Torres did his Thang™ which has now earned him a Thierry Henry comparison. Barf…the thing was pretty much written in stone at the point, Marseille looking like a diseased Llama on the attack, and then a goal from Kuyt on a sloppy goal kick and Babel sticking one in at the end like they do in West Hollywood.

Come on, Marseille. French football is already so pathetic, and then you had to go and waste an opportunity to prevent the fast paced belting of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone” for another year, at least on weekdays. Sacre bleu.

A Brief Introduction

Many people have asked me, “Why do you love soccer so much, what is it about this sport that draws you to it so passionately and not, say, backgammon? How can you possibly watch four ninety-minute games on a Saturday without going blind?” These are fair questions. Why indeed? I sometimes ring off the old vanguard of noble reasons: “There are no commercial breaks. It’s free flowing and unpredictable. It involves coordination and tactical acumen as well as great athleticism.” But what use are these reasons? You can say the same thing about field hockey but that don’t make it football.

The truth is I didn’t choose football. It chose me. I am merely an innocent bystander. I’m like Richard Dreyfus in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, flashed with a brilliant light (94’ World Cup, Romario, thirteen years old), and suddenly barreling after pitches and games and articles like a maniac – “This means something!” I’ll say, watching Lens vs. Auxerre at 2:00 AM on a Tuesday, “This is important.” I haven’t left my family yet to go climb the Bernabeu, or ruined my kitchen building a soccer pitch on the linoleum with dirt from the neighbour’s lawn. But I’ve spent a great deal of money on a trip to England merely to catch a glimpse of my club, Aston Villa, play Charlton at the Valley over Christmas. I’ve skipped work for GROUP STAGE matches in the Champions League. I follow League 2 standings the way some people follow their investment portfolios.

Perhaps I have a problem. Or perhaps YOU have a problem, still stuck in your life watching hockey or basketball, mired in the grinding machine that is ‘other sports.’ Perhaps you aren’t prepared for the more splendid life football affords to her loyal servants. Let this web log or ‘‘blog’ be a guide to you then. Let it be your freak show or your inspiration. I don’t care. I don’t have time to care. Serie B reruns are on SopCast.