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Posts Tagged ‘football’

Bad Call

August 4, 2014 | by

The growing redundancy of sports commentary.

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Photo via Wikimedia Commons

You’re gonna have to learn your clichés. You’re gonna have to study them, you’re gonna have to know them. They’re your friends. Write this down: ‘We gotta play it one day at a time.’
Bull Durham

They smelled the jugular.
—Sportscaster Chris Berman, during the 2002 NFL playoffs

In 1945, George Orwell’s “The Sporting Spirit” appeared in the leftist weekly Tribune. The essay argued that large-scale athletic competition, rather than creating a “healthy rivalry” between opponents, is more likely to rouse humanity’s “savage passions.” Thus: “There cannot be much doubt that the whole thing is bound up with the rise of nationalism—that is, with the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige.”

To a contemporary reader, Orwell’s assessment of the “sporting spirit” may feel exaggerated, if not slightly paranoid. Then again, in an age of rampant merchandising, zealous fandom feels more pervasive than ever. Not long ago, riding the subway, I saw an infant with a San Francisco 49ers pacifier; in the same car, there was a man wearing an Ohio State football sweater bearing the laconic slogan, “Fuck Michigan.” What Orwell might have thought of such displays of allegiance is anyone’s guess.

But what he would find troublesome is sports culture’s continued abasement of the English language. Professional sports jargon has become so vacuous that TV interviews with athletes are increasingly farcical—and tremendously boring. An interview with LeBron James, after a botched play at the end of a quarter:

INTERVIEWER: Lebron, what happened with you and Norris on that inbounds pass?
JAMES: We didn’t execute.
INTERVIEWER: You were talking to him as you guys walked off the floor. What did you say?
JAMES: That we need to execute better.

Perhaps such vagueness is intentional: if LeBron James had, in fact, just told his teammate that if he makes the same mistake again he’s going to rip his face off, he’d be disinclined to share it with a national audience. For similar reasons, a coach interviewed at halftime isn’t going to be too forthcoming when asked to reveal his strategy for the remainder of the game: “Well, Chris, we’ve just gotta keep pressuring their quarterback and not make any unnecessary mistakes.” Read More »

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Painkillers, God, and America

June 18, 2014 | by

Let us pray. Photo: Jason Wojciechowski, via Flickr

According to the American Society of Interventional Pain Physicians, Americans consume 80 percent of the world’s painkillers—more than 110 tons of addictive opiates every year. As a writer in The Guardian put it, the U.S. must be a very painful place to live.

How much of that pain has been caused by soccer? Not much, at least not to begin with: an unlikely and magnificent 1-0 victory over England in World Cup 1950 (held then as now in Brazil) featured a bunch of part-timers putting the boot to the “Kings of Football.” It didn’t require so much as a baby aspirin. Since then, working on the “no pain no gain” principle so beloved of hackneyed American high-school football coaches, the U.S. has enjoyed a steady climb up the world rankings and some encouraging advances in international tournaments, including a World Cup quarter-final in 2002. Still, in the last sixty-four years, there have been more losses and draws—a draw in the U.S. means, as we all know, a loss—than wins. But not many Americans were following the team during all that. I imagine only a fraction of a ton of painkillers were consumed.

Now, though, after this week’s stirring 2-1 victory over Ghana, the 80-percenters are getting on-board big-time, and The New York Times is reporting that a majority of Americans are convinced, unlike their coach, that the USA can triumph in Brazil. The team is clearly riding for a fall, isn’t it? They play Portugal on Sunday. One would think it’s pass-the-Tylenol time. Read More »

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Desire and Despair

June 17, 2014 | by

Germany vs. Portugal; Iran vs. Nigeria; USA vs. Ghana.

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Watching the World Cup in DUMBO. Photo: Rowan Ricardo Phillips

The greatest poverty is not to live
in a physical world, to feel that one’s desire
Is too difficult to tell from despair.
—Wallace Stevens

Yesterday, in a tunnel down under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, a flatscreen floated in the light of an arch like the iris of a giant eye. Tables and benches of the sort you’d find at a picnic site were spread about; it was one of those rare times in New York that space was clearly not at a premium. The tunnel was shady and cool. Behind the flatscreen, at the end of the long arch where the noon light seemed irrelevant, a renovated factory glittered.

On the screen, we watched as Germany took apart Portugal. The Portuguese team exhibited their typical flaws: an overreliance on hierarchy and on their best player; a rash of madness by their most hotheaded player, which led to his ejection; a lack of belief against a team with a higher pedigree. The German team, on the other hand, exhibited their typical strengths: you know, German stuff. They won 4-0.

Soon afterward, the tournament saw its first draw, with Iran and Nigeria sputtering through a scoreless game. The big story of the match was probably Nigeria’s forest and key-lime-green color palette, combined with their fluorescent pink-and-yellow shoes. That, and that Iran had a Christian on their team. The world, like a football, is round and confounds. Read More »

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Sketches of Spain; England Acquits Itself Well

June 16, 2014 | by

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A still from video of Italy’s victory over England.

Rowan Ricardo Phillips, from New York:

Thursday has turned to Monday. The World Cup has blossomed. The opening game seemed intent on mocking any potential pleasure or faith you may have had in this tournament—but now it’s become so good, so quickly, that some people are already calling it the best World Cup they’ve ever seen. Eleven games thus far and not a single draw; the matches have been, for the most part, tightly contested. The Swiss threw in a last-gasp winner against an extremely naïve Ecuador; teams have sought to be positive, to attack, sometimes without thinking before rushing forward. But enough of that, Jonathan will no doubt be writing about England; his memoir is called Kick and Run, after all.

Almost all the big players have played up to their lofty status. Almost.

Spain, as you likely know by now, was atomized by the Netherlands to the tune of 5-1. The score flattered Spain: Holland could have, and really should have, scored a few more. To put into proper context, remember: Spain is the two-time defending European Champion and allowed a total of two goals (two!) in the last World Cup, which they also won, beating a Holland team so intimidated that instead of playing the osmotic football for which they’re famed, they played like the Steven Segal All-Stars, bastardizing themselves among the long line of great and balletic Dutch teams.

Four years later, the main actors were the same (including these two), but Holland was deadly and Spain soporific. What changed? Read More »

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Out of Joint

June 13, 2014 | by

The opening ceremony; Brazil and Croatia.

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When I switched on last night’s World Cup opening ceremony, it first appeared that some São Paulo carnivalesque version of Macbeth was in production and Birnam wood was on its way to Dunsinane. A number of figures masquerading as trees were making their way around the field shaking their branches and twigs. But soon the trees had exotic birds for companions and then some children in white bounced on a trampoline while mechanical leaves unfolded and, of course, we were not in Scotland but a virtual rainforest, where the uncontacted tribe appeared to consist only of JLo, Pitbull, and Claudia Leitte. Luckily for them, the Amazonian jungle on display was the Disneyfied version, significantly denatured: there were no carnivorous plants in evidence or shamelessly sexual banana fronds. Two years ago, scientists discovered in a Brazilian river a new species of blind snake that looks like a penis. I do not believe it was represented during the opening ceremony. The tribe of three sang “We Are One (Ole Ola),” plucked from the Songbook of Truly Awful Tunes Written for Grand Occasions. The message held up until the twenty-sixth minute of the game that followed, between Brazil and Croatia, when Neymar received the tournament’s first yellow card for slamming his forearm into Luka Modrić’s throat.

We all know that Nature, even when significantly denatured, abhors a vacuum—so as soon as the rainforest had left the field, on came the teams. The Brazilians walked out with their right arms extended on to the right shoulder of the player in front, as if only their leader could see.

Not seeing, as it turned out, was a theme of the game. The Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura, for example, failed to see that the Brazilian striker Fred had not been fouled by Dejan Lovren, which led to Neymar converting the game-winning penalty. Nor did the ref see that Julio Cesar, Brazil’s goalkeeper, had also not been fouled when Perisic had a goal disallowed. Or that Oscar’s clinching third goal came after Rakitic had been blatantly fouled. Read More »

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Kickoff

June 12, 2014 | by

The World Cup begins now. Jonathan Wilson and Rowan Ricardo Phillips will write dispatches for The Daily; here, they introduce themselves and the games.

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Jonathan Wilson, from London:

“All the new thinking is about loss. In this it resembles all the old thinking.” That’s Robert Hass, in the opening of his great poem “Meditation at Lagunitas.” The lines resonate: earlier this week, before departing for the World Cup in Brazil, the U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who is German, asserted, “We cannot win the World Cup,” and it didn’t go down well. At least one pundit suggested that he should “get out of America.”

In soccer-saturated London, where I arrived last week, Klinsmann’s remarks might have elicited a more sympathetic response. England hasn’t won the World Cup since 1966, and this year’s team is generally considered transitional, unformed, untested. However, with the kind of twisted logic that applies to soccer supporters worldwide, the dominant “not a hope” take on England’s chances has subtly transformed in recent days to a “well, there are no expectations, so the pressure’s off, so in fact that could translate into improved performance, so hmm, well maybe, just maybe…”

England’s manager, Roy Hodgson—who’s a bit grumpy, has interesting hair, is undoubtedly the most literary figure England has ever employed (The Guardian reported that he read Laurent Binet’s novel HHhH on the flight to Rio), and likes to rib the press about their obsessions with certain players and the hysterical pressure they exert on him to play them—recently succumbed to the dangerous new optimism. He announced that England was indeed capable of winning. Even so, (almost) all the new thinking is still about loss, and in this it resembles the thinking of populations in participating countries worldwide, unless you happen to be from Brazil or Argentina, or maybe Germany— although not so much now that their star midfielder, Marco Reus, has torn his ankle ligaments and is out for the duration.

This isn’t to say that Brazil or Argentina must triumph, although no team from outside South America has ever won the World Cup when it has been played there, but simply that when it comes to international soccer, American over-optimism is rarely in evidence except for, as you might expect, in the minds and hearts of Americans. Nobody, of course, who knows anything at all about soccer, thinks that the U.S. can win the World Cup, and to compound matters the team is in a group of death with Ghana, Portugal, and Germany. In the furor over Klinsmann’s remarks and his subsequent refusal to back down, I was reminded of the time that Ronald Reagan came on TV after he’d traded arms for hostages and announced that even though it looked like he’d done exactly that, in his heart he knew that he hadn’t. American hearts can be frequently, powerfully, and touchingly resistant to reality. Read More »

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