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Skyscrapers and Everything

June 5, 2015 | by

The trouble with gazing upward in New York.

Don’t look up, Stevie!

About four minutes into Stevie Wonder’s 1973 classic “Living for the City”—a surging, seven-plus minute thumper track about racial injustice, migration, and the failure of the latter to cure the former—the song emerges from its second chorus and breaks down to its sparest parts. We hear the quizzical staccato of the synthesizer flit in and out like lingering sunlight; the dry drums, which just seconds ago were rolling out an elaborate fill, tap quarter-note rimshots on the snare; all the other instruments stop playing. Welcome to New York.

This interlude, barely a minute long but seemingly much longer, is a marvel within an already marvelous song. It’s an early example in popular music of that moment when a song recognizes its limits and turns, momentarily, into something larger and stranger. After all, Stevie could’ve just tagged on another verse about New York, keeping the song’s structure intact, but wouldn’t there be something thin and dreamy about that? New York collects anthems like medals: “New York, New York,” “On Broadway,” and “Empire State of Mind” are all, in essence, odes to skylines, with outsized grandeur to match. Their scale grows out of proportion; aphorism replaces emotion; the music hits its mark and no one gets hurt. The lesson for songwriters tackling New York has always been this: if you’re going to sing to the city, sing big. The skyline, as more than few writers have reminded us, can even look like musical notation if you squint hard enough. Read More »

The End

July 15, 2014 | by

Bastian_Schweinsteiger_celebrates_at_the_2014_FIFA_World_Cup

Bastian Schweinsteiger celebrates. Photo: Agência Brasil, via Wikimedia Commons

The World Cup doesn’t end so much as it slips back into itself.

As soon as the whistle is blown one last time, the recaps, the nostalgia, and the smart surmises begin. But then, a day later, after the last team has returned to its home country and the cheers of hundreds of thousands of euphoric fans, the specifics start to stretch beyond the immediate recall they enjoyed during these June and July days. The locations and stadia whose names were on the tip of your tongue begin to hang back as you go forth with your life. You’ve suddenly forgotten the name of that player you didn’t know on that team you weren’t familiar with—the player you’d enjoyed so much that you’d learned to pronounce his name perfectly. Or, if you’re American and have grown through this tournament to love the game, the world may suddenly seem farther away again. The excuses to strike up a conversation with a stranger dwindle. The news of the rest of the world starts with the Middle East again. And left to fend for themselves, the details of your World Cup experience begin to connect their own dots.

Mario Götze—the brilliant, young, attacking midfielder who scored the winning goal for Germany with seven minutes remaining in extra time in the final in Rio de Janeiro, after Argentina enjoyed the clearest chances in the game—becomes Andrés Iniesta, the brilliant, young, attacking midfielder who scored the winning goal for Spain with four minutes remaining in extra time in the final in Johannesburg, after the Netherlands enjoyed the clearest chances in the game.

Unreserved praise for German planning and perseverance as the model for world football becomes unreserved praise for Spanish art and expression as the model for world football.

The thirteenth-ranked 2014 USA team, which showed significant improvement by qualifying after winning one game, drawing one game, and losing twice in Brazil, becomes the fourteenth-ranked 2010 USA team, which showed significant improvement by qualifying for the second round after winning one game, drawing two games, and losing one.

The reigning World Champion, Spain, bowing out meekly in the first round of this 2014 tournament, becomes the reigning World Champion, Italy, bowing out meekly in the first round of the 2010 tournament.

A screwed Brazilian citizenry becomes a screwed South African citizenry. Read More »

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Let’s Get Metaphysical

July 10, 2014 | by

Argentina vs. the Netherlands, 1978: Mario Kempes of Argentina celebrates a goal.

Argentina and the Netherlands played yesterday’s second semifinal. That’s as much as should be said about the match, which forced us to appreciate what this World Cup has been, while remembering what it could have been. Throughout 120 minutes of football, there was first, last, and above all an air of safety that had been refreshingly absent from most of the games thus far—and with that absence came gifts of goals and good play. But yesterday, there was so much at stake: safe passage to a World Cup final. Since both teams are middling, professional, and graced by the presence of once-in-a-lifetime, left-footed talents, they took no risks—no playing the ball patiently through the midfield, no attempts at a tactical surprise. It was a game of chicken, and a penalty kick shoot-out was the inevitable collision.

Or: Argentina and the Netherlands played yesterday’s second semifinal. That’s as much as should be said about the match, which forced us to rue what this World Cup could have been, and to remember it exactly as it was. Throughout 120 minutes of football, there was an air of danger in every movement that put to the sword the careless attacking and defending we’ve seen in all the games thus far—we’ve suffered own gifted goals and poor play for it. But yesterday, there was so much at stake: safe passage to a World Cup final. Since both teams are fairly stout and battle-tested—graced by the presence of not only once-in-a-lifetime, left-footed talents, but a host of other complimentary stars—they went forward intelligently instead of rashly. They avoided over-elaborating in the middle of the pitch and followed their tactical plans to the letter. It was as though the game was played in a labyrinth, and a penalty kick shoot-out was the inevitable way out.

Football games between sides with history between them seem to exist in a multiverse—everything that has happened between them happens here simultaneously. All outcomes exist at once. Hence, Argentina versus the Netherlands in the São Paulo of 2014 is Argentina versus the Netherlands in the Marseille of 1998 is Argentina versus the Netherlands in the Buenos Aires of 1978. The weight of history is in the thickness of the air: young men run into each other with the anxiety and ache of memories that are not theirs, and the colors of their shirts become portals. No competition is barnacled by its past like a World Cup. Two sides significantly better than Brazil—but neither of which had ever defeated Brazil—capitulated in the round of sixteen and in the quarterfinals, more to the canary-yellow shirts than to the players who wore them. (We know what happened afterward.) Read More »

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Third Place

July 8, 2014 | by

DBP_1994_1718_Sporthilfe_Fußball_FIFA-WM-Pokal

From a 1994 German postage stamp.

The arc of this World Cup nears its completion. Over prosperity and poverty, over cities and shores and jungles, over fair winter and fiery winter, it ascended, curved, and now looks to settle, in Rio’s Maracanã on Sunday.

But first, the midweek semifinals. Four teams remain, and four heavyweights at that—Argentina, Brazil, Germany, the Netherlands. Two of these will paint the enduring portrait of this World Cup.

There’s hardly a World Cup whose final image hasn’t occurred in its final match. Think of Holland’s Nigel de Jong’s karate kick to Spain’s Xabi Alonso’s chest in 2010; or Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt in 2006; or Ronaldo, who’d sat out most of the past three seasons because of knee injuries, scoring the only two goals of the 2002 final against Germany; or Zidane’s two first-half goals against Brazil in the ’98 final, and the strange sight of Ronaldo, then at the height of his powers, seeming to struggle to stay on his feet; or the reigning FIFA World Player of the Year, Roberto Baggio, missing the decisive penalty against Brazil in Los Angeles in 1994; the euphoria of Paolo Rossi in ’82; the Dutch scoring in ’74 against West Germany in West Germany, within two minutes of kickoff, and with the Germans yet to touch the ball; and on, and on. Read More »

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Variation on a Theme of Jacques Brel

July 1, 2014 | by

usa belgium

The United States plays Belgium today in the round of sixteen, with the winner moving on to the quarterfinals of this 2014 World Cup. It’s an accomplishment the U.S. has only managed once before, in 2002, by beating Mexico, before losing a tightly contested match to Germany, the eventual tournament runners-up. Belgium has gone further—they arrived as far as the semifinals in 1986 before succumbing to two Diego Maradona goals and then losing to France 4-2 in extra time in the consolatory third-place game. That was an extraordinary Belgian side: Enzo Scifo, Eric Gerets, Jean-Marie Pfaff in goal, Jan Ceulemans. Since then, Belgium has fared no better in the World Cup than the U.S. has—three exits at this very same round of sixteen, one exit at the group stage, and, in 2006 and 2010, a failure even to qualify for the tournament. The U.S. hasn’t missed a World Cup since, coincidentally, 1986.

During those bleak years of nonqualification, something was quietly cooking in Belgium: a second golden generation of topflight players that would be the envy of any nation. Now they have arrived. They may lack a little something special in their midfield, but that’s a mere quibble. They are not only an embarrassingly deep side—they’re also the third youngest squad in the tournament, and the youngest still standing. There would be no shame in the U.S. losing to a side as good as Belgium, especially not at such rarefied heights; by the time of kickoff today, there will be only nine teams left.

Yet there’s a beautiful, mind-bending quality to the self-belief of this U.S. team, no matter how many passes they misplace. You can’t blame them for thinking Belgium is there for the taking. As good as the Belgium roster may be, they haven’t been very good in the tournament thus far, having squeaked out very late wins in all three of their matches without showing much cohesion in the process. They play in the formation of choice these days, 4-3-3, but as I said above, they lack fluidity and hierarchy in the middle three; their wide defenders are central defenders by trade and don’t provide much elaboration on offense. These constant headaches have obliged their best attacking player, Eden Hazard, to drop deep and look for the ball, causing a bottleneck in the middle of the field. Pure, outrageous talent has gotten them through. Their coach has said that all of this is intentional, that they’ve paced themselves in the heat, have sought to avoid doing anything rash, and have then, at the end of the game, put their foot on the accelerator. He’ll be in New York selling the bridges along the East River at the end of July. Read More »

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Still Moving

June 26, 2014 | by

14322646340_be2eedbebb_k Gabriel Smith

Photo: Gabriel Smith, via Flickr.

My friend Jacob tends to be right about things. He has great taste in music; I find myself nodding my head at him whenever politics comes up; and when he laid out, like tarot cards, his hopes for this World Cup—as nearly all of my friends did before the start of the tournament—I couldn’t help but think that his predictions would work for me, too. We’ll have our parting of the ways soon enough: the Netherlands plays Mexico in a few days. The truth is, if Mexico wins, I’ll be happy for him. And I like to think that if the Netherlands wins, he’ll be happy for me, too.

Empathy like that provides balance in the world of blinding madness that sports can be. It’s a particular type of immigrant upbringing, perhaps, that gives you an agnostic indifference to overdetermined allegiances—a hope that, regardless of what happens, there’s beauty that comes from it, and an instructive joy to share and pass on.

So: I watch Bosnia for my friends Sasa and Veba, because Bosnia reminded me so much of them—committed, creative, pensive, puckish. Colombia for my aunt Claudia and her mother, Nelly. For Alejandra, and Beti and Marlon, Japan, because they always, and almost always impractically, propose to play beautifully, thinking this time they’ll get it right. Algeria for Camus’s ghost and for their players born in France, who heard the call to come back. Nigeria because Rashidi Yekini’s goal at USA ’94, Nigeria’s first ever in a World Cup, touched me in some still inchoate way—and because few things in the world are better than a happy Teju Cole. Italy—despite the neutral hardwired animosity—for how Andrea Pirlo ambles on the field, far off from everyone’s pace, seemingly alone, surrounded not by defenders but rather by his own genius. Costa Rica for sixty-five and a half years with no armed forces. Argentina for Messi—if only for Messi. Read More »

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