Saturday, May 22, 2010

I Go All Barney Ronay on the Nike Ad

Look, I like soccer ads sometimes.  I even like soccer ads that a lot of people hate, like the one during the 1998 World Cup that featured a Massive Attack song and some black and white shots of soccer players taking free kicks in what looks like one of those indoor mountain climbing gyms.

Well, I liked that one because I thought I liked the song at the time, until I found out later I didn't.

Anyway, Nike's latest effort has everyone going crazy.  Like telling me on twitter it's FUCKING AWESOME (all caps, natch).  But I don't like it much, and while there isn't a little contrarianism in that stance (call me the Christopher Hitchens of soccer ad critiques), I do have my reasons.

Part of the whole problem for me is that the release of a mega-conglomerate sweatshop football boots advertisement is now considered An Event.  How do we know?  Well, The Foreign Guy Who Makes Powerful Movies Sometimes With Foreign People and Sometimes with Hollywood People directed it.  And it's a big enough deal for Paolo Bandini to do a proper write-up on it for the Guardian, mentioning previous Nike efforts as if this new one were a sequel of sorts.  Bandini's piece even reads kind of like a movie review (a lukewarm review, no less).

The hyperbole is intended to echo some of the breathless media coverage of the World Cup.  It's not a soccer tournament, it's THE SPORTING EVENT OF THE SUMMER, in theatres and pubs Starting June 11th (a Friday no less).  Nike wants to be your chum in the excited build-up to the tournament by being manic and self-referential, dropping knowing references (although generally accessible ones) like a middle schooler peppering his conversation with asides lifted from Robot Chicken and Family Guy.

First we have Ivory Coast vs. the Blue Team That Is Italy, played in Johannesburg's famous (and apparently plastic pitched) Nike Stadium Brought to You by Nike.  An immense Didier Drogba loops a shot over a defender, and various African announcers and villagers in nameless African cities across the Great Nation of Africa bang drums and adjust their aging TVs—  there's Africa, sorted.

Except no!  Fabio Cannavaro saves Italy's Proscuitto by doing one of those last ditch bicycle kicks to clear the ball off the line (out of position again, are we Fabio?).  Then we get a shot of one of those ghastly Italian variety shows to celebrate Cannavaro's heroism, we're all in on the joke again—there's Italy, sorted.

It goes on like this, with England Rooney facing off against The White Team that is France, failing and then redeeming himself in short order. That allows Nike to showcase two alternate realities: first, a stock market crash and a harmlessly quick shot of English hooligans, with a bearded and presumably destitute Rooney in a trailer park looking on at a giant Ribery billboard (footballers living in poverty, what a gas!).  Then after a decent side tackle, we get Wayne babies and a knighting from the same woman who played Queen Elizabeth in the Naked Gun. England, sorted. 

It goes on like this.  Ronaldinho—who isn't included in Dunga's squad—does a step over on Nike's plastic pitch of the sort that would make Garrincha weep with laughter, with Kobe Bryant imitating him (reference!) and YouTube views in the millions (reference!).  Ronaldo has an enormous paper maché statue unveiled (reference!), has a movie made after his life starring Gael Garcia Bernal (reference!), and then nutmegs Homer Simpson (ref—ah, forget it). 

Look, I know soccer boots are important (see Cruyff's Adidas versus Holland's Puma).  And I think it's a good ad on its own merits.  But it doesn't capture anything interesting about soccer.  The tournament is about countries, rivalries, ordinary fans, not how fans go mad over the actions of individual players.  That's what separates it from baseball.  I get that the ad is supposed to be hyperbolic, but the strain it extrapolates from (obsession with individual players) doesn't really exist in the World Cup.  Even with Maradona's brilliance, you still need Barruchaga, you still need those white and blue shirts, you still need France and Italy, not Ribery wearing a featureless blue shirt and Cannavaro wearing a featureless white. 

I know Nike has the budget to do whatever they want, but I'm still mesmerized by those NHL History Will be Made ads.  A key moment from old playoff games reversed in slow motion.  Simple, inexpensive, oddly moving, and better yet, endlessly imitable.  We have to watch this ad a million times between now and July 11th; some room for variety, and simplicity, would have gone a long way.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

What Blogs Should I Read For the World Cup? Part 3: The Run of Play

Yes we all know it was going to happen.  Might was well get you all on board now.

In my other life, I sing in a well-respected Toronto-based choir.  The conductor is famous for his full-bodied direction on stage, a habit that has garnered him the nickname "twinkle toes."  He is also known in singing circles for his absurdist directorial metaphors, which involve floating elephants, swinging handbags, a giant Michelin Man walking on the moon.  While they're hard to get used to, they oddly make choirs sing the way he wants, i.e. they usually work.

I made my first comment on Brian Phillips' site Run of Play almost two years ago, on the Inner Life of Didier Drogba.  Most blogs about soccer, even the best ones, usually depend on words.  Here instead was a photo of a weird hotdog statue squirting ketchup on his head, which the reader was supposed to look at while listening to Duke Ellington and somehow conjure up the inner thoughts of a highly paid Ivory Coast native who plays for Chelsea FC.

This sort of thing is difficult to pull off—too obvious, or too opaque, a blog like this can easily slip into hipster narcissism.  In my two years as an avid reader, I've always been amazed how the Run of Play always works. 

Thankfully, Phillips mostly relies on words (although for a long time his "About" page featured a seemingly unrelated collage of images, which said more about RoP than any blurb ever could); he is one of the best living soccer writers I have ever read, and has had as much influence on my approach to soccer as Brian Glanville's The Story of the World Cup.  A recent example: a post on former Chelsea manager, Avram Grant meeting Cheslea in the FA Cup final with Portsmouth.  In one paragraph, Phillips tells you all you need to know about Grant's time with the West London club:
Grant was not only the least likely possible candidate to bring tidings of fun to the people—a sludge monster with jowls of doom and a baleful croak of a voice—he was also completely untested. Chelsea was his first job outside Israel, which meant that, as far as the narrative megalith of English-speaking soccer was concerned, it was his first job, period. Before it, he had merely drifted through the machinery, looking for strings to pull and scenes to stand behind. So now the least obviously entertaining life form in the galaxy was promising entertainment; the least experienced coach in soccer was promising superlative victories; a man with no apparent claim to straight-faced hubris was calling down the gods in a granitic, expressionless monotone. It was a script, it was obviously a script, even if he’d volunteered it or had it willingly coaxed out of him. But he was the one reading it, and that was all. 
Compare this to Chelsea's Wikipedia page, which blandly declares "In September 2007 Mourinho was replaced by Avram Grant, who led the club to their first UEFA Champions League final, in which they lost on penalties to Manchester United. Grant was sacked days later and succeeded by Luiz Felipe Scolari in July 2008."  Phillips brings you the surrounding season-long drama—the journalistic bleating, the hubris of Chelsea owner Roman Abramovic—in one paragraph, and now you're up to speed on most of the overarching narrative of the 2007-08 Chelsea season.

Except the site is much, much more, especially now.  Phillips recently redesigned Run of Play as the home of a new serial drama based in New York during the 1920s, Brooklyn Asylum FC, and not surprisingly, Phillips proves he also adept at writing fiction.  His prose betrays his love of imagery, and in five short installments we are already very a part of Gershwin's New York, following a pretty successful year for the title club.  A taste, Phillips vivid opening description of a crammed speakeasy: 
At Pharaoh’s they were coming out of the trenches again, thousands of them, pouring down the side of the crumpled napkin, running in waves down the polished grain of the bar. The guns roared down on them from the batteries on the mirror-shimmering gin shelf and their lines broke and they fell in piles, but still they kept coming. The officers pressed down on their helmets and screamed, urging the men forward. The barrage blew huge chunks out of the level wood and whiskey and bodies and shards of broken glass and scraps from somebody’s old racing form went spinning. Everything was spinning, the cheap chandelier and the armies and the old man and the faded curtains with the mock-Egyptian print. Sam’s jaw was crushed against the back of his wrist on the bar and the ragged lines kept coming.      
There are blogs and there are blogs.  Run of Play is an online series of thoughts and reflections about a niche interest, so in that sense it is a blog like any other.  Except Phillips pushes himself, his point of focus, his writing, his design, beyond print journalism, beyond sports writing, beyond fiction, beyond what many imagine might be capable for a individual soccer site.  He pushes to remind everyone that the web affords the freethinker a lot of room to push.  This is the glory of the internet, and if you read Phillips long enough, it's hard to think what other sport could have inspired this sort of achievement.  (I would recommend something to listen to while reading, but Phillips has of course already thought of that.)

Will Cover: England, USA
Good to Read: At the end of a long day reading through match reports and player transfer rumours.
Wine:  Forget wine, how about a nice glass of Hockley Dark?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

What Blogs Should I Read For the World Cup? Part 2: Treasons, Strategems & Spoils

Today I bring you the blogger knows as Roswitha (although I prefer to use the moniker of her web address, the Angry Nun), author of Treasons, Stratagems & Spoils.  It may seem to be a bit scatter shot reading right now, so may I suggest some John Cage prepared piano while looking through the back catalog?  Don't bother with the wikipedia for now, although I would take her taste in soccer books seriously.

There are two main reasons I'm pointing you here, outside of the obvious fact the Angry Nun is among the more formidable readers/writers of the game. The first reason is, as usual during this World Cup, you are going to hear a lot of bollocks about Italy.  It will be everywhere, from the supposedly unbiased studio panelists of whatever broadcaster you're stuck watching, to the Italian fans themselves gesturing at you in bars and going on about Paolo Rossi.  If you listen to these voices, you will be among the hoards of football know-nothings who will continue to say idiotic things about Italy, her league, Serie A, and all the players that country has ever generated.  The Angry Nun, like Elliot, also has the advantage of geographic distance from her subject: she lives in Mumbai.  She has the potential to be one of the country's best English language voices on Italian soccer (mention must be made of here Spangly Princess—English-speaking women seem to be the flag-bearers of judicious writing on calcio at the moment).

I write "has the potential to be", clinging to the Angry Nun's assertion on her 'about' blurb that she "...will probably be blogging the World Cup on my footie blog, Treasons, Stratagems & Spoils."  Which brings me to the second main reason you should come here and come here often over the next month—I hope, and want, this World Cup to make the Angry Nun write more.  A lot more (this is my blog so I'll be as selfish as I like, thanks). Over the years, there have been some fine soccer blogs that have flared up powerfully only to either transmogrify into something else, a resume page, a scattershot collections of writings about cultural artifacts of which football is only one.  Some disappear altogether, like Gramsci's Kingdom.  Perhaps he's still around somewhere, I don't know.  But I still check his blog every week, just in case it has magically floated to life again on the coattails of Mancini's Man City continued Premier League hijinks.

I did a similar thing with T, S & S for a full year, and now because the Angry Nun has recently teased me with essays like this one, a book review of a hitherto unknown collection of soccer novellas by Moti Nandy, I'm not going to just let it go.  I'm dropping the gauntlet.  World Cups change blogs.

Will Cover: Italy, England, US maybe?
Good to Read: In the quiet days and nights after the group stages and in between quarterfinals and semifinals.
Wine:  Conti Sertoli Salis Sassela Valtellina Superiore 2004

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

What Blogs Should I Read For the World Cup? Part 1: Futfanatico

This is the first part of a group of recommended blogs (in no particular order) that I will be introducing non-regular soccer readers to in the weeks before the World Cup.  While long-time blog readers might sort of chuckle at themselves softly in the deep recesses of their suburban basements, old Leeds matches from the early seventies playing on a VHS loop on a lonely TV in the corner, this is really meant for the johnny-come-latelies who might not want all their World Cup info coming from John Molinaro.  Or anybody attached to Sports Illustrated with the exception of Grant Wahl.

Hi!  You may have come upon this site because you asked Google or some similar-but-almost-certainly-inferior search engine to tell you what blogs you should read during the World Cup in South Africa.  I don't claim to know what you should read definitively in all possible worlds like some floating Leibnizian monad (although now you and I both know you shouldn't read this one); these recommendations are based on my own taste, which is all I have to guide me through this troublous life.  You may hate all you read here, fine, but at least you covered these blogs and can say that you tried.  What, indeed, is life otherwise for?

So. Part the First: Futfanatico, written by Elliot.  If you are not a regular soccer follower, this may be a bit of a difficult read at times (it is quite referency), but the energy of the writing on this site will keep you tethered, IMO.  But it's as a good start as any to the odd world of the geographically removed soccer blogger.  What I recommend is to plunk yourself through some of the back catalog with a nice glass of Pinot Grigio and an open tab with Wikipedia at the ready.  You will learn some, probably not retain anything at first, and might get bored with Wikipedia after awhile and just let it wash over you.

In fact, I recommend doing just that with Elliot's round-up of the 2009-2010 Premier League season (the top league in England).  Give yourself something to listen to.  May I recommend Handel's choral heavy Israel in Egypt? A sampler:

Futfanatico will be useful gathering the more absurd but zeitgeisty moments that make tournaments like the World Cup enjoyable.  He also has mucho to say about both America's Major League Soccer League of Soccer and La Liga, the Spanish major league soccer that has a player you might as well Wikipedia now, then YouTube, Lionel Messi.  And he seems quite taken with some prospective little leaguer named Junito

Elliot is a very lively read, but he is also a blogger who provides many links but without maintaining a "link section," which is a dying art on the Internet, and supposedly something that will in fact rot your brain.  Let it.  I had many a glass of rotten grape juice in my time and enjoyed myself.  You will learn a lot here. 

Will Cover: Spain, England, America, Argentina, Mexico
Good to Read: If something hilariously absurd although perhaps not minorly tragic occurs.
Wine: Pinot Grigiot

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Good Soccer Writing is Fueled by Love (Duh)

Sorry for the long pause (I think longest in AMSL's history if I'm not mistaken).  I was working.  Like last Saturday, when I performed at one of those concerts professional musicians are forced to attend once or twice a year.  Far removed from the regular stuff—baroque, period performance in a familiar venue with familiar faces who know when to clap and when to sit silent—I ended up in some Coptic church in Richmond Hill performing Coptic music with a mix of Coptic and classical musicians.  It was one of those gigs you walk into initially and think, "here we go, the things I do for money etc."  Hip, professional cynicism.

Except it turned out to be a very enjoyable concert.  The audience, clearly unused to "live classical performance," clapped with abandon throughout, overlapping the ends of pieces with no regard to concert etiquette. They gave standing ovations before intermission.  Before, in the middle, and after, they gave us food, gifts, and then more food.  Afterward the MC, who looked no more than twenty-five years old, said he had "never experienced anything like it in his life."  Standing there singing this strident, Eastern-sounding Coptic religious music, miles off course from where I've been working toward my entire professional life (Bach oratorios and Handel operas essentially), I was happy because the audience was happy.  That happiness was reflected back at us through every beat and every measure. On the way home, I realized that simple enjoyment is often missing in the high falutin' world of classical performance, where music is a protected relic and performers museum workers.

I've been busy with some other work too, some of which involved reading Globe and Mail TV critic John Doyle's excellent new soccer book, The World is a Ball.  I was privileged to sit down with Doyle and ask a few questions about it, and in passing he mentioned how increased soccer coverage might improve the quality of sportswriting in North America.

Traditional newspaper sportswriting, whether in New York or Madrid, is diversionary—you read the Sports Section to calm nerves in the waiting room or steam past breakfast table fights with your family.  The American sportswriter has an easier time of it because American sports seem designed for objective analysis. Basketball, American football, baseball, hockey are as collapsible as computer programs.  Measured in quarters, yards, ERAs and players point averages, entire games get crammed into minuscule "box scores" laid out side-by-side on a single sheet of newsprint.  The actual sportswriting is meant to reflect this total epistemic supremacy—with adjectives cut, sentences guillotined, and any romance, indeed, any actual love for sport on the part of the writer (not a prerequisite for the profession) paved over like potholes by a judicious editor, the Game Report is ready for publication.  Hand it over dear, I have a train to catch. 

Soccer meanwhile bleeds out in all directions; statistics, like possession or shots on goal, are of little help when held up to an actual ninety minute encounter.  Writing about soccer therefore requires a pair of eyes and a subjective mind, which is why no two newspaper soccer match reports are alike.  Writing about soccer is also deeply challenging for the hack entrusted with five-hundred words and ten minutes to submit her report for copyediting.  European and South American sportswriters long ago got around this problem by developing a romantic shorthand heavily dependent on a rotating carousel of similes and adjectives and a set format—open with a pithy lede, describe the decisive game deciding action, and work through the match from the beginning.  At its best, it produces some the best writing on anything ever [Glanville quotes].  At its worst, it devolves into lazy cliche (so many examples abound I hesitate to replicate them).    

Still, despite their differences, American and European sportswriting follow the same template.  The Sports Section is to be read over coffee and tossed out on a subway platform, divulging information on missed live matches with as little fuss as possible. 

So then the Internet.  Did the revolution happen in a neat little consecutive time line stretching back to 1995?  You and I both know that it didn't.  I'll try and paraphrase Clay Shirkly as best I can here, but essentially you ended up with a situation where anybody coudl writ wheterver the fucj they wanted, press publish, and have it available for anyone with an Internet browser.  No editors, no deadlines, no content restrictions, no fact-checking, and not really much money, even for the big boys, even to this very day.

So what did this mean for sportswriting?  Well, I could be lazy and say, "it made newspaper journalism obsolete."  Wrong.  I could also say it suddenly opened up sports writing across the board to a new frontier of exciting, daring, weird, insightful personal writing about sport, but I don't know to be honest.  I don't read a lot outside of the soccerverse, but are there's for every American professional sport?  All I know is soccer, and I know that it's worked very much according to the same schema as the infinite number of monkeys sitting at an infinite number of typewriters.  Everyone's doing it, so the quality thankfully rises to the top.  But the quality right now, I have to say, is exemplary.  Look at if you want an idea of what I mean.  I happen to agree with John Doyle that soccer is leading the way in innovative sportswriting. So why this sport and not snooker?

It helps that soccer is a statistical blank slate.  It's the world's game, it doesn't align itself with an exclusive set of interested nations, like baseball or cricket.  I love touchlines, you love the Africa Cup of Nations, I like the J-League, you like John Carew's weird hair. If no two newspaper match reports, then there are countless interpretations of the ongoing league and international dramas in football, all unique, all personable, but always with the kernel of universal recognition.  

The other ingredient is love.  Traditional sportswriting is all about diversion.  The sports section comes with the paper, you can either take it or leave it, but if you take it, you're not meant to hold on to it very long.  The Internet puts the onus on the reader to search things out.  Soccer sites are made for people who love the sport, and most writers, who make shit money from this sort of thing, write out of love.  You can smell the soccer sites that run on page impressions a mile away.  Like us performers at the Coptic church, soccer writers might not be working their dream jobs, but it's enough to write about the sport and be appreciated for it.

Anyway, I already know what you're thinking:  "Jesus Christ, this guy fuck's off for a month and then comes back writing about the same old stupid meta internet sportswriting shit.  Slapping himself on the back again, what an arsehole."  Hold on a minute, as Sid Lowe might say.  We've got a World Cup coming around the corner, and that means a lot more outside traffic for nichey soccer sites.  I think by and large they're going to really like what they see.  So with that in mind, I'm going to be giving out some long overdue props to my partners in crime, and will be providing site by site reviews and recommendations in the lead up to the World Cup.  A way to give back and say thank you.  Yes, it will be industry back slapping at its worst, like a standing ovation before intermission, but the point will be to provide a guide to soccer outsiders as to what they should read ahead of South Africa.  It is a totally personal list, and will focus on more individual blogs, but my aim is to provide a starting point so that we don't end up writing in an echo chamber forever.