Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The crushing weight of England's invisible "should"

I do still have to be Canadian at some point.  So, no I did not witness Landy's goal live.  And if I had I don't think if I would have fist pumped around the house and shredded my vocal folds, never to sing countertenor again.  I got most of that out of my system when I thought former Toronto FC player Maurice Edu had scored an historic winner against Slovenia the other day.

No, today was about watching England, a team I am cursed with caring about, and experiencing a very distinct "been there, done that" feeling.  The "rejuvenated" England performance after a particularly abject one.  A performance that says simply, "this is just good enough to beat this Slovenian team on this day, and that will have to do."  A performance that will likely cut in half the number of deliciously snarky adjectives available to the writers over at Guardian Towers.

The easy route when talking about England is to say they're an overhyped team with overhyped players, which is itself an overhyped statement.  Overhyped by whom exactly? The Sun?  I don't know how many times the E.A.S.Y. headline has been trotted out as the grand symbol of ancient English footballing hubris.  I've read various match reports for almost every single England qualifier (of which England won all but one), and none except for a couple after the Zagreb game were in any sense hopeful about England's chances against the world's best international sides in a World Cup.  Outside the tabloids, which nobody takes seriously anyway, the English press is certainly not playing cheerleader for the national team.

So why the over-compensation?  Some English print journos still write about the '53 Hungary game as if they just happened upon it after noticing the 6-3 scoreline on an archive microfiche, and are desperate to let us all know that England have been utter shit for sixty plus years and we just never noticed.  Others insist that it would have been much better if England hadn't won in 1966, which was a terrible tournament anyway because it was a) physical and b) Rattin was questionably sent off and a linesman got a big call in the final wrong. 

In all of this insane self-loathing there is an implication of an invisible but elephantine lack.  Much is said about the pysche of England players at big tournaments, but really they just share the sporting psyche of the entire nation, that England should be the among best national sides in the world but aren't for some reason. 

When pressed on this question, many journalists resort to pointing at Premier League wage bills, as if other favoured but knocked-out European sides didn't employ millionaire club professionals.  Barry Glendenning says England are the worst team in their group, rabidly bets against them after singing the praises of their lowly opposition, then minutes later says they should be beating these teams handily.  You can't blame Glendenning; he knows his role is to feed England fans in search of absolution from expectation after witnessing yet another wayward Lampard miss-kick or John Terry pass into touch.  These fans want desperately to be released from the unbearable "should" that has always enveloped England, and can only do so by making themselves believe England are shit, always have been, always will be.

But there is no "should."  England have not really underperformed at international tournaments. That doesn't mean they're an unlucky Brazil in disguise, nor does it mean they've always played like hopeless, tactically naive buffoons.  I agree with Jonathan Wilson when he declares at the top of Inverting the Pyramid, "I'm not convinced English football is failing."  A team that has won the World Cup once, fairly regularly qualified for it, and consistently landed a place in the knock-out stages, usually the quarter-finals, or indeed a semifinal place in 1990, has nothing to be ashamed about.  Failing to successfully navigate the million incidental moments in the thirty days of winning a World Cup does not make England "hopeless."  Neither does failing to pass the ball around like 1970 Brazil meets 2008 Spain.  England's draw with Algeria, while awful, does not require the major national overhaul of father-son sack-races, as Tom Dunmore pointed out the other day.

Other sides have long been aware there is no "should" at a World Cup. I watched the Brazil vs. North Korea game in a packed Brazilian bar, and man did they party after Brazil won.  They partied like fans of a team just insanely thankful to beat North Korea in a football match.  Brazil.  After a game like that in England, you'd see the men at the bar put their pints down and say, "I suppose a win's a win."  I don't suppose that will ever change, but some measure of perspective would be nice.  At least so I don't have to listen to the CBC's Nigel Reed tell me that England were "only marginally better today but it take much, much more to beat a team like Spain." 

Well, duh Nigel.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Some quick thoughts on France's early exit

I will never forget watching the reaction of Aimé Jacquet when asked if he would ever forgive the French media for their treatment of him prior to France winning the World Cup in 1998.

"Jamais jamais."  Never never.  

After helping France reach the semifinals of the 96 Euros, the French press turned on Jacquet for his perceived defensive caution and lack of clarity in plan of attack in the lead up to the World Cup.  He was considered a bumpkin, a naive buffoon.  So vicious were the attacks that Jacquet announced he would quit as manager on the same night France hoisted their first and only World Cup. 

I don't write this out of sympathy for Domenech; his failed on-air proposal following the 2008 Euros should have signaled to the FFF that this was not a man capable of reigning in the complex egos involved in a team with likes of Ribery, Gourcuff and Evra.  Even France's success in 2006 was marked more by Zidane's resurgence than Domenech's team leadership.    

But leading France is probably the worst managerial job in international football, worse even than England.  I was reminded of that today listening to French journalist Phillipe Auclair speak with James Richardson on the Guardian's Football Daily.  Auclair remarked that for some in the French establishment, who arguably wanted little to do with football until immediately after France 98, France in the World Cup is not eleven men playing football—it is the nation itself.  The players are not millionaire professionals playing at various European clubs—they are the misguided, multi-ethnic product of the forgotten banlieues, who care nothing of French society or its cultural heritage.   And Domenech is not a football manager—he is symbol of weak French leadership, a bumbling politician incapable getting these miserable kids to reach a miraculous pro-France consensus.

Normally this sort of overwrought symbolism would remain the purview of pretentious football bloggers, but if memory serves me right, Auclair non-ironically used the word "mourning" when speaking of how the nation reacted to France's mutiny.  In England, being shit at the football is the stuff of jokey tabloid headlines and self-serving coming of age novels.  In France, it is a "moral crisis."  And it's ridiculous, simply for the same reason that many French journalists remarked that the multi-ethnic banlieue team that won in 1998 and 2000 was a symbol of France's glorious new multicultural era.

The social problems in modern France were as rampant then as now, minus the more high-profile rioting of recent years (the prophetic La Haine was produced in 1995).  A World Cup and a Euro didn't kill it off.  Neither does France's exit mean France is headed for some internal social reckoning.  At best that is the thinking of romantics, at worst, nationalist reactionaries.  Let France be terrible at soccer, let the jokes ring out about Anelka's little coup d'etat.  But don't drag your social political op-eds into the sports section, lest your social politics become mere sport.     


Monday, June 21, 2010

I don't give a shit if soccer gets big in America

Home again, home again.

Yeah, it's been a bit.  I've been raving away on Yahoo, both for Mother Country and for the rest of the world who are content to tell me, a total stranger, that I'm an idiot (there is a particular obsession about whether I've gone to high school or not.  Well let me tell you I did, and I LOVED it!).

So here we are over a week into the Big Show and I've written nary a word here, unlike Mr. Phillips who continues to torment me with his prolific brilliance throughout this tournament.  What to say about South Africa 2010?  The World Cup narratives are spinning off like unknown bits and bobs out of the Hadron collider, and I feel at this point I'm on the verge of getting sucked into a black hole of media-driven speculation about which turn will evolve into which twist.

The centre will not hold, ladies and gentlemen, France and England are replaying A Tale of Two Cities in football form, a novel I just happened to be reading before the World Cup began; Spain and Portugal were terrible until they were not terrible anymore; African countries are refusing to acknowledge the occasion the world has been begging her to acknowledge for the last four years, and Dunga is unzipping his fly and taking a long, satisfying piss all over the legacy of 1970, won forty years ago today.  Oh, and Maradona may be the best manager at the World Cup.

I'm already dizzy.  No, that's not what I want to write about.  What I want to tell you is that if you're American and you don't care about the World Cup, I really don't give a fat steaming shit about it.  The apoplexy of those not in the soccer know asking what it will take for America to really, really finally oh pretty please just love soccer already is now just about more grating than the forty thousand vuvuzelas I sometimes dream are in my closet.  The piercing, droning noise is coming from all sides, both here and England for some reason, who seem obsessed with the idea that their gimpy little cousins might finally take to their Best Sport in the World if the Yanks make, oh I don't know, the quarterfinals.   

It seems some observers think Americans are incapable of enjoying soccer alongside other pastimes, as if there is this thick ledger line between soccer and "American sports," and once you cross the Rubicon, they're ain't no going back, cowboy.  With us or against us.  This is a bogus way of looking at things; it's so 2003.  First of all, there is no such thing as "American sports."  A Slovenian won the LA Lakers their seven thousandth NBA title the other night, and even in light of the US Slovenia 2-2 draw, @runofplay kept hammering it home on Twitter to no avail.  Hockey, as one of my colleagues at Yahoo! pointed out the other day, is more popular in Slovakia than soccer.  Baseball, like Tom Waits, is big in Japan.

Look—oh god, I'm going to have to write this—soccer is one of the most popular participation sports in the United States of America.  Sure it's a kids sport, but enough of these kids get good, they're going to want to get better.  And continue to get better.  And they will demand the coaching to get better, and the facilities.  And people quite good at making good soccer players better are going to take the envelope full of money, and the kids keep growing up, and little MLS is just going to annoyingly extrapolate upwards.

Does that mean soccer is going to "take America by storm" like those Africanized bees were supposed to some years back?  No.  You know who else doesn't give a shit if America loves soccer? MLS.  And, thank Christ, American soccer fans.  Even so, soccer will continue to be played in America by Americans, it will continue to be watched on American stations by passionate Americans packed in American bars.  Soccer will not rescind its citizenship because Glenn Beck thinks it's gay.  And it doesn't care if you think it's low-scoring, boring, features lots of diving, that the vuvuzelas are loud and what's the deal with Ronaldo's stupid face etc. etc. etc.  It doesn't care if you think it's terrible compared to the Best League in the World, or that you don't know who Gooch is supposed to be.

The question about American soccer is not a question.  You either like it or you don't, and liking it is not a preclusion to hating NASCAR or the NFL. And no, it's probably never going to be bigger than either sport in the USA.  But if you don't like it soccer, don't waste column space telling us how we all told you you had to love it "or else."  Nobody told you that, because nobody cares what you think (except maybe ESPN, but they can take it.  Martin Tyler won't cry).  You are stupid for saying anything.  Be a grown-up.  Turn off the TV.  Or change the channel and watch Wimbledon.  There.  An American sport.  Tennis.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Soccer Isn't Special, It's Just Simple

Meh, whatever.

As always happens close to the World Cup, soccer people in Canada or the US tend to get asked questions about the sport.  Some are specifically related to rules, players, how the knockout stages work, if there's still a golden goal, what is MLS, etc. etc.  These questions are fun to answer because they force you to look twice at aspects of the game you'd normally take for granted—there's nothing more challenging than trying to explain how the offside rule works to someone over the phone.

Then there are the questions that really bother me.  Like, "Why does the world think this sport is so great?  What makes it different than hockey or basketball?"  I tend to get asked these questions around my fourth or fifth bottle of Labatt 50, and unlike a certain bloated atheistic Englishman in America who writes some interesting book reviews from time to time, I get less articulate under the influence, not more.

So what usually happens is I choke out things like, "soccer is a blank slate," it is "instantly accessible," that it's the sort of sport where Ives Galarcep's opinions are about as legitimate as the taxi driver who says he knows why Didier Drogba's injury could be a blessing in disguise for the Ivory Coast.  But isn't that just as true for hockey or basketball they tell me?  All sports are based on a foundation of idle speculation, as Richard Ford once put it.

Then I talk about because it's a global game, it allows for national variation, and therefore is more expressive than other sports.  What about baseball? is the response.  It's got Japanese, Cuban, Puerto Rican and American variations.  And hockey has Scandanavian, Canadian, Slavic and American strains. 

Well, it's the passion of the supporters.  But then how is that passion any different from the deafening noise at the Bell Centre when the Montreal Canadiens play?  And what's so noble about that?  Isn't soccer just a cipher for intense European and South American regionalism?

Maybe it's the intense skill and marvel of the players.  Cruyff, Maradona, Mattheus Sindelar.  So what?  Gretzky, Michael Jordan, even Phil Taylor are capable of giving us moments of sublime grace.  Athleticism and beauty isn't exclusive to football.

After this, what are you stuck with?  Quoting Hugo Sanchez's store-bought soccer-as-religion shtick?  Paraphrasing Blanchflower's "the game is about glory?"  Reading aloud from Eduardo Galeano, or finding Jorge Valdano interviews on YouTube?

Maybe beyond the orgiastic Tifos, the street parties, the flags, the hyperbolic celebrity and fame of soccer's elite, at it's core is a conventional sport that probably got popular because it's so damn easy to set up and play.  I spoke with someone yesterday about why Adidas comes out with a new ball every World Cup, and I said it's because there's only so much sports equipment people can market to soccer players.  Boots, balls, and shin-pads when it comes down to it. And you don't even need two out of those three to have a proper game.

And despite having to strain to explain the offside rule, once you get it, it's gotten. There's a reason no one wants to tinker much with the rules of a game that has worked marvelously for the last century.  We just want the simplest game.  Soccer provides it.  It's nice reading Jonathan Wilson and convincing yourself you're watching an infinitely complex set of latices and movements all controlled and coordinated by the Chief Programmer, the Manager, but really, it's a very well organized instance of twenty-two men or women kicking a ball around for ninety minutes at the end of which Germany wins.

Do we really need soccer to be "special?"  I've given up on that.      

Friday, June 4, 2010

Some Housecleaning, a Small Rant About Why World Cup Advertizers Prove Capitalism Isn't Brilliant

First, sorry for what are becoming all-too routine pauses on A More Splendid Life; my own less than splendid life has this sorry habit of getting in the way.  So, some fun announcements.

Second, one of the reasons it has been a bit quiet around here is because Brooks at Dirty Tackle has lost his mind and let me post up various bits and bobs on his esteemed site over the next five weeks for the World Cup.  So you can see the nice, clean, North American-wide version of what I do.

Third, I did a short profile on John Doyle and his new book, The World is a Ball, in the latest issue of Toronto Life.  It's not online, but if you're bored in an airport or something, you can flip through and have a read.

Fourth, what's in store for AMSL during the World Cup.  Part of my Yahoo! mandate will be reporting on what's happening in Toronto in and around the tournament, so I'm going to be posting up photos as part of a World Cup diary on this site.  I'll be continuing my "Blogs your Should Read for the World Cup" series throughout the games, so hope and pray that this tiny Canadian site will send you its ten regular readers.  I will do everything in my power to do a daily post.  Will they all be keepers?  Well, no.

Fifth, am I the only one almost completely overwhelmed by the media build-up to this tournament?  This is the first World Cup since I started writing about soccer, so I'm probably more attuned to the media hype than in years past.  I've certainly noticed how my inbox is full of weird requests from electronics companies, century-old football associations, and on-line soccer shirt stores all wanting free publicity because, you know, we're all "friends" on the internet.  This blog would look pretty funny if I decided to follow their wishes and just jam it full of all their stupid shit, which of course tempted me to do just that over the next five weeks.

But it's kind of worrying that for all the soccer writers waving lighters at the glorious future of internet journalism that the money side—the advertisers—are still under the impression that merely sending someone a link for a product with almost no relation to what the blog is about will generate a positive response.  Who are the bloggers filling their sites with corporate widgets?  What does a bobble-head doll have to do with I write on this website?  Why do people think my name is A More Splendid Life, or that someone who writes on the internet is somehow incapable of recognizing a mass mail mad-libs for an inferior product?

As a person brought up in the neoliberal nineties, it's sort of a revelation how private companies on the whole are quite inept.  Like, forget BP; why aren't more corporations investing as much as they can in clean energy research?  The company that patents inexpensive, clean energy products—cars, for example—will over the next several decades make a bajillion bucks, both from government grants and as regulation slowly leans in their favour.  Global warming could have been a huge crisitunity bonanza, but the secret is out—capitalism, at least these days, isn't very creative.  Now the drunk frat boys who get business degrees just sort of mill around writing excel spreadsheets in between signing cheques for election donations to keep off shore oil wells going for ever and ever, amen.  Either that or they call themselves a digital new social media rep and then spend the day emailing bloggers blank requests for free PR.

But I digress.  The World Cup is doing this to me.  Even the publications I normally turn to to escape are throwing South Africa in my face.  The latest New Yorker has a great article out on the US national team, and the New York Times Sunday mag has a must-read article on Ajax's academy system.  Everyone is just pumping all this rich gooey soccer writing oil into the fragile online eco-system.  I promise to keep my own contributions at a daily minimum.