Wednesday, April 30, 2008

What Does an All-English Champions League Final Mean?

For the last few years the prospect of an all-Premiership Champions League final has been hanging over European football like a wet towel. Many on the continent hoped they wouldn't live to see the day, while others back on the Isles licked their chops and broke in their wallets in anticipation of the massive windfall potentially generated from the 90 minute ad for the English 'brand.' But no one could claim England's dominance in Europe came as a surprise.

Indeed, as the number of Big Four English clubs proceeding to the semi-finals increases yearly, UEFA's bloated brain-child seems like all things today to be going retro. However, some major differences exist between 2005-2008 and 1977-1984. Whereas in the old days winning the European Cup involved good tactics, strong individual players, leadership, a lot of luck, as well as a lopsided turn of form between the different domestic leagues (think Italy's match-fixture problems leading up to the 1982 World Cup for example), today the Champions League is an endurance test requiring either expensive depth on the bench or an alchemist's ability to balance the needs of domestic league days and European nights with often the one being sacrificed for the other (Liverpool 2005, AC Milan 2007).

England has been fastest to recognize the new set-up in Europe and therefore in recent years has reaped the most success. For all of Jorge Valdano's complaining about shit on a stick when Chelsea came to Anfield last year, dire defensive-minded ball-hoofing is exactly what it takes to win the fattest tournament (in all senses of the word) in all of modern sport.

Last night's pairing of Manchester United and Barcelona provided the perfect example; Barca artfully passed the ball with an ease that Capello should use as a model for England, but could not penetrate the red and white bedposts waiting in the box. United on the other hand took their one chance through Scholes half-volley from thirty yards, but across the two legs defensive organization and careful deployment won the day. Some key substitutions and the luxury of maintaining composure with both Rooney and Vidic out for the second leg came courtesy of the sort of depth that most clubs in Europe do not have the money to provide.

Perhaps the greatest indicator of the importance of money in the Champions League is the fact that the country providing both clubs in the European Cup final will not be represented in the European Championship. This absurd outcome is as natural for the neoliberals on Fleet street as it is outrageous to those who covet international football as the summit of the game; indeed, when EU rulings put the movement of football players between nations on the same level as flat-screen televisions, DVDs, subsidized food and illicit drugs, in the parlance of the technocrats, the domestic 'product' has to learn to adjust or fade away. England has chosen its path, Capello's appointment notwithstanding.

English supporters are reportedly upset they must go to Moscow on May 21st to watch what is essentially a domestic fixture; what they should realize is Moscow is but a preview for Scudamore's 39th game. English top four clubs merely have their home offices in England; they are now products of a flat world to be bought and traded like any other corporatized commodity. While UEFA huffs and puffs to the public about the degradation of the game at the hands of the bankers, in true Straussian fashion they are busy whispering reassurances in the ears of the King; whether it be Murdoch, Abramovich, Hicks or Gillett. England's dominance in Europe is really the free market's dominance in the West -- and nations have nothing to do with it.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Some Words on Chelsea v. Manchester United

Okay, enough of this auto-biographical, masturbatory drivel; let's get back to the football. Today witnessed what B-Sky-B/Setanta had been hyping since the top of the season, a Big Four clash worthy of the cut-rate production value, pre-during-post-show Macca-Les-Gray-Keys malarkey about Scudamore's 'Best League in the World.' The title race in England, for all the self-flagellation the league has endured by critical minds in the British Isles, is still very much alive and well, brought back to life in a fashion that hasn't looked this exciting since the early days of ER.

Today's fixture had real verve and purpose, and though Ferguson may have reason to whinge after a decidedly sketchy hand-ball decision at the critical juncture that gave Chelsea the win, he should surely share some of the blame for conjuring Chelsea's long-dormant attacking spirit in the first hour by sending out a cynical first-team. Silvestre? Nani? Fletcher!? The latter especially looked rusty, and the Scotch professor was lucky not to have been carded all over the place with physical play worthy of Boris Johnson.

Chelsea started like a bat out of hell, exhibiting a stream-lined, one-touch passing play that, while lacking the tactical machinations of Mourinho, certainly looked threatening enough for a goal or two. Indeed, after Joe Cole turned and hit the bar around the half-hour mark after a minor penalty shout in the United area, it seemed only a matter of time. Then Ballack's header, and even after Rooney's equalizer on Carvalho's ludicrous error Chelsea didn't look out for the count. Manchester United is still Manchester United so there were some late goal-line heroics in front the Chelsea goal, but they never really pressed like it counted, and the German skipper's penalty against Van Der Saar was enough to put Chelsea level on points but trailing on goal difference.

Avram Grant's Chelsea doesn't consistently patch these crucial performances together, as was exhibited by a limp CL outing at Anfield which, without some bad Liverpudlian finishing and a certain Norwegian's last minute interference, could have been dire. Perhaps more credit should go to the strength of Stamford Bridge, the site of Avram Grant's other rabbit-out-the-hat win against Arsenal which came when the ravenous English press had all but paid his one way flight back to Tel Aviv and Chelsea's own supporters were chanting 'you don't know what you're doing.'

Whether or not this will mean anything remains to be seen, and that is truly what makes the end of the season interesting. The title race, while still in the blinged fist of the Big Four, will now be decided by the following clubs: Wigan, West Ham, Newcastle and Bolton. The Premier League is still a competitive disaster, but the fact that there is a glimmer of hope in England that all is not done and dusted with the title-race is tacit acknowledgment of the plucky resolve of some of the lower-table sides, for whom success in these final fixtures means survival in the top flight. West Ham has always been Manchester United's bottom-table nemesis, and Keegan's resurgent Newcastle should have a few tricks in store for Chelsea.

It may indeed come down to the last day of the season to decide both the eventual title winners as well as those facing some hard time in the Championship. And for Bolton and possibly Wigan, it may mean deciding the title-race as well as their own survival at the same time. This rare instance may be the only sort of competitive edge fans of English football can enjoy these days, so we should be glad to take it.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

On Singing Countertenor and Loving Football

Part of the original intention of web logs was to form a massive public catalogue of the daily life of total strangers, in keeping with our generation's completely voluntary giving-over to the giant digital panopticon that is 'New Media' (for a great article on this phenomenon, please click here). Because of my reactive nausea to said phenomenon I've up this point tried to prevent this blog from turning into a confessional, but my experience this week I think is universal enough to lovers of football that it deserves a mention.

As I wrote earlier, I had to miss Toronto FC's home opener for a rehearsal for an upcoming production of Henry Purcell's 'The Indian Queen.' Nothing particularly of note there, except for the first time I felt a real conflict between my professional life as a countertenor and my life as a devotee of football. And no, not because of time conflicts, or because of the damage done to my vocal chords from all that screaming. It's a crisis of confidence.

I'm twenty-seven years old. In the grand scheme of things, I'm still very young and have a great swathe of life ahead of me, barring any unforeseen tragedy ('No way he could have seen that Dell falling from the thirty-second floor. I mean I know they're useless but that's just not right.') But in the world of professional singing, there is a stop watch that starts around your late teens and is set to stop around age thirty. Really by that age if you're still scrounging piecemeal with this little thing and that little thing, you can probably let the dream of a life as a professional soloist go.

What football reminds me is that I don't have the sort of passion and love for my chosen field as I probably need. Singing is something you have to do 'whole hog' to succeed; my footballism is already there a priori. There is a lot of fear, self-doubt, and humiliating obstacles to overcome in singing, and if you're not as passionate about some obscure Handelian aria as you are about the fate of Lens and PSG in the Championat table, chances are you're not going to have the strength to push through.

Being more passionate about football than your day-job is not unique to singers. I can guarantee that the 80 000 fans who show up to watch Schalke inevitably lose Bayern Munich care more about those two hour proceedings than they care about their well-protected and renumerated German day jobs. It's just not all careers have the luxury of being a 'day job,' and that is where my dilemma lies -- how do I achieve the same familiar spark of joy at seeing that big green pitch as I do walking onto a spotlit stage? Is there a way I can learn from football how to love singing countertenor more passionately? Are they so at odds? Both involve perfecting physical skill at the highest level (yes, singing is ultimately a very finely tuned physical exercise), both involve making potentially terrible mistakes in a very public way, and both involve a sense of occasion, of old-fashioned spectacle (although it will be a cold day in hell when I get a packed football stadium to hear Purcell's 'Come Ye Sons of Art').

Perhaps most importantly, both music and football involve a mysterious alchemy to work, one that reams of cash, talent and organization alone can never seem to produce no matter how hard some people try. In other words, both require an element of (hold on to your noses for the cheesy smell!) magic. My career as a countertenor is a continuing project and perhaps I will have to be content with doing a little bit of this and little bit of that for the rest of my life, god knows there are worse fates. But maybe it would make all of our lives a little better to throw ourselves into what we do with the same insane devotion we tuck away for football, to walk into our chosen professions like we're walking from out of the tunnel and into the glare of the floodlights. That feeling can never be forced, but only football reminds us of its power.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Academia and Football

Football is one of those things that, like a good piece of art, attracts so much interest that the observer is pressed to suspect there is something more going on than what merely appears to the eye. The overpopulated philosophical subdivision called 'aesthetics' catalogues the attempts of some great minds hoping to reify the unspeakable in art using words, attempts that eventually culminated in Adorno's wry and hilarious 'Aesthetic Theory,' a work crafted with the sort paragraph-less, obfuscatory prose now considered de riguer among humanities professors from UCLA through to the Sorbonne.

Having completely dissected and, ugh, deconstructed the art that for thousands of years many found merely to be a pleasant distraction from the grinding hopelessness of daily life, academics are increasingly turning their gaze toward the 'Beautiful' Game (but what is beauty, really, other than the fascist projection of bourgeois values yada yada yada). No longer a sport featuring twenty-two players and a ball, football provides a lens to study everything from the hyper-masculine hero-image of the modern footballer to the anthropological root of war as spectacle through to the breakdown of the relationship to sign and signified in modern commercial sponsorship (I wonder what Baudrillard, recently dead, would have to say about Sky Sports broadcasting Fly Emirates versus AIG Insurance?). Like Don DeLillo's fictitious Hitler studies in 'White Noise,' football is just one more esoteric peg on the plinko board for academia to hit on its way to the bottom.

Perhaps I'm old fashioned, maybe even a little dim, but what happened to the enjoyment of football for football's sake? I realise that I'm speaking as one who has devoted the last five months to writing about football, but I don't expect the game to unlock the secrets of Muscular Christian oppression or to yield some timeless insight about the dynamics of Marxian class conflict. It seems to me that Western intellectual progress has led itself down the rabbit hole of irrelevance, and football is merely one of several victims as it spasms for air. Perhaps as we hopefully move back to a culture of noble auto-didacts seeking to avoid the credentialed logorrhea of the academic class, this sort of thing will be looked back at as the height of (post?) modern decadence.

In the end it may not matter what academia makes of football, like those countless unread doctoral theses permanently parked in university library stacks across the globe, except that all those minds could be pursuing something better like tackling the massive global inequity wrought by commercial capitalism or countering the machinations of empire pursued by the Bushes and Ahmenidijad's of the world. Meanwhile, why bother putting into words something like Nakamura's strike yesterday in the Old Firm, the magic of Anfield European nights, or the mysteries of the calculation of injury time? Sometimes these things are best left to silence to reconcile.

Monday, April 14, 2008

An Open Letter to Toronto FC Award-Winners for 100% Attendance

Dir Sir/Madam,

Toronto FC, our red soccer team sponsored by the Bank of Montreal, plays their home opener this weekend, and, alas, alack, I will be in rehearsal for a concert at the end of this month and will miss the fucking thing. The home opener. This is our house. The south stand. Beer cups. Seat cushions. The freezing cold. Gone.

This seems to happen to me a lot. I mean, supposing for a moment there is a God; what the hell sort of divine message is this supposed to be? The MLSE basically forces me to go halve-seys on the season back in January before anyone knows anything about anything, I pick the Western conference, the MLS sets the fixture list and I have three conflicts so finely matched as to be beyond the scope of mere coincidence. This after we showed up on Beckham's sparsely-populated front lawn down there in sunny LAX, stealing a win and scoring what I believe is a club record for away goals, finally pumping me up for a season that may not be actually be shitcanned by June. I can't see the home opener because I have to sing some wankerific Purcellian fagopera? What the hell is that?

Does anyone else have this problem? Sometimes I speak with guys from the Red Patch Boys and its like, either they're on welfare and they stole their season's tickets from 'some guy and his family,' or they're massively spoiled basement-dwellers who have no shame writing cheques to themselves from their senile-yet-old-moneyed grandma's chequebook.

Well people I have a job. My job pays for my football. Sometimes my job asks for a sacrifice to keep the football gods happy. Don't ask what I had to do with a bucket of goat's blood and pig entrails to keep Villa above tenth place this year -- I don't use a nom de plume on this thing so anything doesn't go unfortunately. Toronto FC -- you can keep your damn home opener. Get your hattrick Dichio. I don't like it but there it is. In the meantime, don't preach to me from the Gospel of Shankly; trust me, football is life death and whatever is in between, the gooey centre if you will. But I've earned the right to take one off. I've waited long enough to see pro soccer in the town of my birth. I don't owe anything to you, dear wankerish full-season ticket holding, away game attending, beer mooching, stay at homing, non existing reader. Except your sporadic visits to this sticky little space in interspace yes. But otherwise, no.

On that note, anyone willing to trade an Eastern game or two, leave me a message.

Yours in bloggery,


Friday, April 11, 2008

The Half-Decent Blog Entry about Fully Decent Football Sites

I've been going at this blog since December now and have learned some things that I'm not sure I ever wanted to know about the weird relationship between football, electronic 'print' media, and the common man. The very fact there is something known as a 'meat puppet' is disturbing beyond words, and that I know what it means more so, especially for my loved ones. I've also learned that the adage 'less is more' is perhaps best considered when surfing through the endless pages of dire prose about 'those fukin cheeters manu (sic, of course)' that fill each and every corner of the -- oh god, here I go -- blogosphere.

With that in mind, I've found a few footballish morsels of the web that are worth savouring, mostly from that oft-maligned old girl, the 'mainstream media.' Yes, for all the po-mo twaddle about the everyman-author in the age of the information superhighway, the dopest football shit still comes from the old guard -- companies with hired staff paid to write about what the rest of us give out for free. And before you Luddites start licking your self-righteous chops (why are you on the web Luddite? Leave now or drown in your hypocrisy), I'm referring here to 'print' media specifically on the web.

I spend a bit of time on the internet. I'm not proud of it, but I'm not really ashamed of it either, and neither should you be dear non-existent reader. At first it seemed like a smorgasbord of football bits and pieces, some of this, a lot of that, and a lot of this too unfortunately. After some time I ended up settling on the banal beans-on-toast simplicity of the BBC, mostly because I was not initially aware there was a way to cover football with grace, eloquence, and good humour. That changed when I read a yellowed copy of Brian Glanville's unjustly ignored collection of World Cup writing, which covered every tournament up until the total joke of 1990. That soon brought me to When Saturday Comes, which, alas until recently didn't have much in the way of anything on the web. I thought I was forever stuck with Robbo and 606 until I met the Guardian.

Call me a sycophant, but I challenge you to find a better, less pretentious, more funny, and more in-depth source of football analysis on the web right now. The columnists are sort of nerdish everymen with above-average intelligence, cut-glass prose-style, and a penchant for football that often exceeds what some would consider normal for people (yes, Margaret, women write knowledgeably about football too!) of a certain age. There is also a laudable readership who participate in an actually meaningful way on the blogs, something the vast majority of football comment sections have failed miserably to inspire ('those fukin cheeting gooners' [sic, sic, sic]). The site should be a model for media organizations who want a healthy balance between traditional print and the utopia promised with the 'New Media.'

Speaking of which, have a look at what our own media have chosen to offer in the way of sahker coverage. Really? Fernando Torres is something special? Toronto is ready to bleed red for the FC this summer, we watch more international club football than almost any city in North America, we've been often cited as the most soccer-sophisticated fans in the MLS, and this is the fare our own MSM has come up with to offer. No wonder ours is a culture of blogs and webzines and all the rest. Toronto is ripe for a major media overhaul in football -- there is enough talent for it, enough wit for it, enough readers smart enough not to be talked down to about what they already know. The question is, who has the balls to do it?

Monday, April 7, 2008

The Loneliness of the Long-Winded Football Fan

I have gone out on many occasions and found myself invariably next to someone who I know knows as much, cares as much, and breathes as much football as me. Yet for the sake of etiquette, the interests of the group, and my image as a person with opinions that are, very once in awhile, worth listening to, I am obliged not to discuss the details of last week's Serie A developments, Totti's forthcoming absence again from this weeks Champions League fixtures, or the utter disgrace that is Toronto FC. This is the life of a lone football fan.

There is a certain social stigma associated with watching soccer in North America. The sport tends to attract either gangly nerds or those sort of pretend jocks that love to talk up last week's cricket scores using lots of swears while they get drunk off one pint of Fosters. Even Toronto FC's 'hardcore' section has a certain lameness that can't be pinpointed -- a weird mixture of sport freak and toy train collector that really has no other societal equivalent. It's something that, once witnessed by a close friend or associate, can wreck years of work crafting the image of a person who is not obsessed with the athleticism of highly-paid European men.

I remember the dark mornings in Montreal when I was forced by limited means to catch some meaningless fixture on a Saturday morning at that shit-stain of a bar known as 'Champs,' which just about perfectly describes both the owners and clientèle. Boys who didn't look much more than 18 draped in tattered Arsenal shirts discussing Dennis Bergkamp shots-on-goal stats with ex-pat Londoners three times their age--this was not where you wanted to take your girlfriend. And yet there I dragged her, mostly to dull the loser-sheen down a few notches while I took in Manchester United v. Norwich. Of course it didn't work. She would look at me cock-eyed as some ailing pipsqueak squawked out 'One Nil to the Arsenal' in his West Montreal accent and remind me 'There are nicer things to be doing on a Saturday morning.' 'Next week, my dear, next week' came the reply. But for the football obsessed, next week never comes.

And don't think you can prove that you're not like the rest of those 'god damned nerds.' Because that was you and not someone else checking the internet to see who is likely to get promoted to Ligue Un this year, or trying to figure out how much it would cost to fly to England to catch Villa at home to Birmingham City and ALMOST transferring the necessary funds from your savings account to your checking account to make the purchase before you realized you're broke. This is not the sort of dirty laundry you want exposed to a public that will never get it no matter how much you plead that it's just, you know, more than a game, it is, believe me IT IS! I wouldn't get it either. Twenty-two men kicking a ball around encapsulating the nameless existential struggle faced by every honest man with their face toward the abyss; it just doesn't resonate in a city where many view sports on par with gun collecting or subscribing to Wii Magazine.

Supposedly the fear is receding now that Toronto has their own team. Fat chance. Now it's even worse: we don't just follow football, we follow North American 'Sah-Ker', a gimmicky, family-friendly kick-about on par in terms of wholesomeness with Ultimate Frisbie. I don't know how much pull this team will get once people get a good look at the supposed-hoolie-ultra-over-thirty-and-still-living-in-my-mum's-basement types who fill the south stand at BMO Field. What's happening ON the field doesn't help much either. The same exchange typically follows when I bring normal sports-loving types to witness the on-field fare offered up by the football geniuses at MLSE.

"Why would you pay to see this?"
"Because it's football."
"But it's terrible, there's no joy in this. They're down three-nil and it's not even half time."
"Club football, it's...our club. It's club football."
"Yeah, I'll see you next week sometime, maybe."

So for now, hold the comments to yourself, get your football rocks off at home to yourself in a corner with a well-worn copy of the latest WSC, and pray for the day that you can walk out the house and wear your Beer and nacho-stained Celtic shirt with pride. Such places really do exist. I'll never forget landing in London and taking the tube only to see the faces of Wenger, Mourinho and Ferguson slapped on the front pages of every national paper available. So astonished was I that I nudged my half-asleep neighbour awake:

"You mean, people read about this stuff in newspapers and not on a website?"
"Fuck off."
"Right." This was London after all. Nonetheless, for the week I was there, spouting off to anyone who could here me in every two-bit real ale pub in East London, I felt the loser-sheen wash off ever so briefly. I mean, who knows: a riot or two this year at the CNE with a a few dead and many injured and soccer might suddenly get really cool in Toronto. Just make sure when the shit goes down you cover your face: you do have an image to maintain.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Fire Mo Johnston

You heard me. What too early? Hasn't even got more than two games into his second season in charge as the new General Manager? I don't care. He's failed already, and in the most important way possible for the supporters of Toronto FC: he didn't bring in one coherent addition (and yes, that includes you too Laruent Robert) to a team that seems to have as much depth as a creepy trailer park wading pool.

Last year at BMO Field, a stadium where Landon Donovan said he could not conceive a home team losing, you could at least leave post-defeat feeling secure that next year some of these assholes would be playing in the USL while we'll be shored up with the assured European quality Mo constantly hinted was on the way. A playmaker or two. A decent midfielder. Defenders with pace who knew how to hold their marker (see the 4-1 loss against DC United last night). A different team basically.

Certainly to some naive fans it looked as if Ronnie O'Brien's departure for allocation money last month, a move that could have only been described as drastic and risky unless Mo had some big name lined up to replace him which we now know he didn't, might bring new and better things. Ronnie was instrumental to our attacking buildup and was one of the few on the team that had both the pace and direction on the counter attack to produce the sort of bona fide chances that were rare for long stretches of last season.

But here we are at the kick-off and we have a bunch of no-name scrips and scraps (excepting Kevin Harmse who was sent off last night and yes, Laurent Robert) that, unless Mo is the Arsene Wenger of the MLS, don't exactly get the pulse racing.

And John Carver? Whose idea was this? When Derby county (!) releases a midfielder who came here specifically to play with Carver (Luton's part-timer, a name that is described in England as 'not highly rated' when it's even recognized at all), you have to wonder if not more is being done to raise our status abroad as a club in search of quality. DC United last were pacier, livelier, more intelligent on the ball. They had players who were able to sidestep our bedpost-like defenders with shocking ease, leading to a two-goal lead after five minutes that can only be described as embarrassing. Toronto FC could not close down, had no communication at the back, and could not even manage a simple one-two with the keeper to boot the ball up field but conceded on my count at least three needless corners, which of course Toronto could not defend. In short, Toronto FC looked like a League Two side playing a Championship team.

Unless the literally-corrupt MLSE is able to recognize we are in a league of talented South American and Mexican players who will eat up lower-tier English cast-offs with ease, this season will likely be much worse than last. And with TFC's new attention, much more embarrassing too...

POST SCRIPT -- Would anyone lead a petition to get Craig Forrest and Gerry Dobson off the RSN telecast? Their 'Captain Canada' routine with the embarrassing over-the-top reactions to every booking against TFC and less than condemnatory comments ("It's gone really bad for Toronto") about what was clearly a complete shambles last night needs to stop...

Friday, April 4, 2008

Soccer and the Culture Wars

I'm almost finished Susan Jacoby's lucid "Age of American Unreason" which follows the decline of the American intellectual tradition since the 195os, and I can't help but wonder where modern football culture lies on the spectrum between low(er) and high(er)brow culture (presuming for a moment there is such a thing, as many postmodern thinkers would disagree). My first thought is that it covers the spread, as a brief survey of the most popular football publications bears out. For every hardcore aficionado of "Football Factories" there is a subscriber to When Saturday Comes; for every Sun sports reader there is someone trolling through the Sports section in the Guardian; for every person reading Eduardo Galleano there is someone absorbed in Wayne Rooney's most recently updated 'auto'-biography.

Some might argue this mixture of higher and lower cultural elements in sport is not unique to football. Baseball for example has produced some navel-gazing ruminations, published in hardcover and sold in 'finer' bookstores, on the capital 'M' Meaning of America's favourite past-time, even while the sport inspires the endlessly shallow logorrhea of AM dial Sports Talk radio. But there is a difference. For highbrow baseball-watchers, the game is simply an empty form in which to sound off about the lilting pastime of the America of old, where men were men, the scenery was quiet and undisturbed by the satanic mills of industry, and the skies were not cloudy all day. A modern development like the propensity for players these days to gobble up steroids like scooby snacks will get attention from the highbrow merely because it is a potent symbol for the get-don't-earn ethos of modern American capitalism and not because of its real-time day-to-day influence on the direction of the Major League, something they presume is best left to talk radio to sort out.

Highbrow soccer culture on the other hand (I'm thinking here of writers like Brian Glanville and David Goldblatt, WSC sometimes) will at its best focus on the nitty-gritty particulars of the game over its ideal form, often diving headfirst into developments in UEFA, the increasingly populist image of FIFA and how it disguises their global realpolitik, individual player-transfer sums, the status of third-world football associations, the growing financial inequality within the league structure in England, sectarian chanting, the political and social demographic fault-lines between supporters of Inter and AC Milan, the relationship between colonialism and the shifts in the footballing talent pool since the 1960s, the list is endless. In short, consumers of highbrow football culture love the game not for its power as a 'symbol' for something greater and more important than its lowbrow spectators have the capacity to recognize (the dance, utopian cooperation, the perfect merger of the strong individual and a strong society), but for precisely the same reason: that it is football and not anything else, a ninety-minute ball game. This enigmatically simple reason is what draws the 'yobs' and the 'snobs' to Emirates Stadium together in droves (if sometimes in differently priced sections).

Football's unique status as a sport that attracts knowledgeable interest from all cultural quarters sometimes produces some awful literature, as witnessed for example in the idealistic, multicultural ravings of the anti-globalization left who humourlessly attempt to hoist their own idealogical mantle onto the game, usually with mixed results. Franklin Foer sits in this camp, who in his presumptuously-titled book "How Soccer Explains the World" denounced Tottenham and Ajax supporters as anti-semites and declared his admiration for Barcelona not for their footballing prowess or familial attachment but for the fact they are controlled in large part by their fans and that, up until last year, they had no corporate sponsors on their shirt.

Equally on the right in North America, the sport's perceived cosmopolitan and European flavour has led to the view that soccer is a game for the so-called 'elites,' rich suburban soccer moms who vote Democratic, and therefore like fine wine, evolutionary biology and global warming it is not to be trusted. Sometimes one fantasizes about sending one of these gasbags to the Den to see how 'elite' the game really is, but they're not likely going to switch over from all-American Football (derived from rugby, which split from soccer, hence the name 'football') to watch a soccer game any time soon.

The point of all this (I know, is there one?) is that football is so ingrained in the regional and national cultures that have embraced it that it cannot be compartmentalized and partitioned to one social group over another, even in firmly or previously class-based societies like Brazil and the UK. In the US, where sport, like music, cannot be left to its own devices but must have an identifiable demographic, there are clearly lowbrow sports (NASCAR, the NFL), middlebrow (baseball) and highbrow (Formula 1, golf). Perhaps the traditionally broad appeal of soccer is one of the reasons why America, a country painted in red and blue states and with one of the highest rich/poor gaps in the developed world, sees fit to ghetto-ize it in the preposterously hokey MLS with its franchise-y names and side-line cheerleaders and self-consciously direct appeals to recent immigrants who, it is presumed by the powers-that-be, should know the game 'from back home.' More likely it hasn't taken root because of American isolationism/exceptionalism, but I can't help of think of another sport with the potential of reaching across the divide the way that football has...

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Manchester United -- Masters of Cattenaccio?

I wrote on this blog not three days ago about Manchester United's dominance of the Premiership as a suspect mark of quality considering their lack of trophies in Europe which, give or take, is the real test of mettle for teams aspiring to be, in the words of a graffiti artist in Style Wars, "the all out king."

I certainly had statistics on my side, at least until ManU's trip tonight to the Stadio Olimpico for a quiet performance that should rank as one of Manchester United's best in Europe for almost a decade; prior to tonight, United had only won twice away in Europe since 1999. I Giallorossi were in truth missing Francesco Totti, their [cliche alert!] talisman up front, and they threw away at least two great chances around the hour mark to level the score after Ronaldo's fantastic Fowler-esque header before the half. But United had a clear tactical edge.

What was remarkable on the night was United's and one hopefully suspects Ferguson's approach to the game, which was intelligent, restrained, and measured, almost the opposite of the archetypical English pundit's cry in Europe for the pace, power, and passion that 'the English game is known for etcetera etcetera.' United's players held possession, didn't close down under pressure, and tentatively inched toward goal two steps forward and one step back, without the accelerated through balls and rapid fire pace that runs ruin back home. For the greater part of the first half they were remarkably similar in style to another white and red club that has played often in the Olimpico; Vidic for short period before his injury looking very much like Japp Stamm did four years ago.

This mature approach even more so than the away-win itself indicates that this year may be different, especially if one considers United's path to the final could be blocked by an increasingly frustrated and therefore resurgent Barcelona. Most players looked up to the change in style; Park and Carrick were a good fit, Rooney looked very comfortable making space in the centre, Evra had a great match. Really all but Scholes, who gave away possession about a thousand times in the United half, seemed comfortable for the walking pace. Mancini and Giuly had great speed and were given lots of space by the newly sonambulant ManU, but couldn't deliver. As Roma pushed farther forward, Ronaldo and Rooney made a great deal of menacing space and kicked up the pace Premiership-style, which meant that all-in-all, by the 70th minute the game was in the bag. De Rossi for the way he played might as well have been on the bench.

The end result of this is that if Manchester United have the intelligence and foresight to play a measured game in Europe and then come home to play their familiar thrashing, pacey 4-4-2, they could be in Moscow against neighbourly opponents they've beaten already this season. I still contend there is an imbalance at the top of the Premiership, but damn it if Manchester United play lovely football.

Note: Paul Doyle just said essentially the same thing as this with more detail and a less decisive finish on the Guardian...the two make a lovely pair in my opinion. And another! That was liquid football!