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Posts Tagged ‘football’

The (Midfield) Engine That Could

May 22, 2014 | by

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Kyle Beckerman. Photo: Warrenfish, via Wikimedia Commons

There are eleven positions on a soccer team, each with its own character. None is more glamorous than the striker, whose job is to score the goals in a game that has so few of them. None is more romantic than the goalkeeper, who stands alone as the team’s last line of defense, the only player who can use his hands in a sport that depends on the use of the feet, the head, and every part of the body but the hands. None is more celebrated than the Number 10, known sometimes as the fantasista, the team’s playmaking superstar who’s asked to supply the creativity that can undo the most rehearsed and structured defense. Yet despite the spotlight that shines on those players, the midfield position situated just in front of the team’s defensive backline is perhaps the most critical of all. Depending on a coach’s preference, a team’s formation, or a player’s talents, that position can be a defensive one, an offensive one, or a blend of both. In most every case, though, it’s the pivot on which the rest of the team turns.

“There’s a reason why they call it the engine of the team,” said Taylor Twellman, a soccer analyst for ESPN. “It controls so many things. The game is determined on the strengths of your team in that position.” Traditionally, the role of that player has been a defensive one, and it often still is. Kyle Beckerman, who sports a powder keg of dreadlocks that makes him easily identifiable on the field, has filled the role for the United States team: his hard tackles and deft touch have made him one of the best holding midfielders, as the traditional name of that position is known, in Major League Soccer, where he is the captain for Real Salt Lake.

“The biggest thing is that it’s a transition position,” Beckerman said. In a game where possession changes hands (or rather, feet) constantly, this is no small thing. When your team is attacking, Beckerman said, “you’re trying to sniff out things before they happen.” This could mean making a tackle that would allow the rest of the team time to catch up to the play—and, at the same time, risking a mistake that would leave the team vulnerable behind him. The way Beckerman performs it, that tackle is often a hard one, straddling the line between a referee’s whistle and a yellow card, and usually incurring the wrath of the opposing team’s fans. Read More »

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The Rebirth of Colombia

May 15, 2014 | by

A team emerges from the shadow of its past.

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The Colombia National Football Team, 2014

Teams in the World Cup are generally split among three tiers. The top one consists of those that year in and year out field the best squads in the world—including most of the previous World Cup winners and finalists, such as Brazil, Germany, and Argentina. The bottom tier consists of those from whom no one expects much, other than that they show up on time for matches. Among that group this year are Iran, Australia, and Algeria. But most teams fall somewhere in that second tier, where fans begin the tournament holding out hope that—through a perfect storm of lucky bounces, mistaken calls, beneficial match draws, and brilliant overachievement—their team will cobble together a World Cup championship. Colombia, who have qualified for the World Cup for the first time in sixteen years, is one of these teams.

“We qualified for the 1962 World Cup, and the best thing you could say about the Colombian team from then until 1990 was that we tied with Russia in 1962 … It wasn’t even a victory,” said the Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vásquez, forty-one, the author of the highly acclaimed 2011 novel The Sound of Things Falling, and an avid soccer fan who has closely followed the Colombian team his entire life. “Football is a very big element of the national unity. So the importance that football has had for Colombia has not been really reflected in the results on an international scale.” Read More »

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Hulk, the Brazilian Outsider

May 9, 2014 | by

As the World Cup approaches, we’re featuring a series of essays on this year’s tournament.
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Hulk playing for Brazil at the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup. Photo: Agência Brasil

The 2014 World Cup, which begins on June 12, is all about Brazil. It is the host country, its team is the favorite, its players and manager are the focus of a huge majority of the two hundred million people who live in the nation and millions more who live outside it. Thirty-one other national teams will be arriving in the country next month, some of them with arguably as good a chance of winning the tournament as Brazil. But until the Selecao—or the Selection, as the Brazilian team is called—gets knocked out of the World Cup, every other team will be a guest in its house.

At nearly every position on the field, Brazil fields some of the best players in the world from the best teams in the world: its star, the forward Neymar, who plays for Barcelona during the club season; its playmaker, Oscar, who plays in London for Chelsea; its defenders Marcelo and Thiago Silva, who play for Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain, respectively. The only thing the team doesn’t have this year is a Ronaldo; as the British writer John Lanchester pointed out before the 2006 World Cup, the team then nearly included four of them—“Ronaldao, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, and Ronaldinhozinho: big Ronald, normal-sized Ronald, small Ronald, and even smaller Ronald.”

In place of all those Ronaldos, though, Brazil has Hulk—its starting right winger, who has a build far different from most any other soccer player in the country, or the world, for that matter. On the pitch, his upper body looks like someone tried to wrap an undersize jersey over a brick house. Hulk plies his trade at Zenit St. Petersburg, in Russia, almost as close as a Brazilian can get to soccer Siberia as the United States. He’s also somewhat removed from the country’s samba school of soccer, a style of play the nation prides itself on and that is commonly referred to as Jogo Bonito, or the Beautiful Game. It’s best represented this year by the creative footwork of Neymar and Oscar, who dodge and dart every which way while maintaining control of the ball as if it were on the long end of a yo-yo attached to their toes instead of their fingers. This isn’t Hulk’s game; his is more the battering ram. Read More »

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MacDonald Played Football for My Cousin’s High School Team

March 12, 2014 | by

The third of five vignettes.

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Photo: David Falconer

I played football against him, and I saw him not only at the games, but at the various league events. And I saw him at my cousin’s school banquets, open houses, graduations. He was the captain of their football team, the president of their student council and their student class; he was the recipient of various league honors whose names escape me, but, I believe, had to do with Most Sportsmanlike, and so on. I saw him suffer through this adulation as a young black man in a white community.

His high school coach cried when praising him at the league’s year-end banquet, and I am sure, though I do not remember, that many of the parents’ generation were moved to mistiness at his valedictory speech. It may have been a good speech, or it may not have, but the half remembered or imagined emotion on the audience’s part must have been mixed relief and self-congratulation; relief at the first hint, in their world, of the end of racism, and self-congratulation at their (imaginary) part in the correction. How could it be otherwise? It could not. Who was harmed? No one except Bill MacDonald, who was the victim of the good-willed farce. Read More »

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The Sportsman’s Code of Chivalry

February 2, 2014 | by

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Two Sundays ago, I watched the AFC Conference game with some friends. Picture a Venn Diagram; label one circle “Fans of the New England Patriots” and the other “People Who Have Studied Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” The person who exists at the intersection of those two circles was sitting on a couch across from me, anxiously eating chips and guacamole. As the Patriots slipped further and further behind the Broncos, talk turned to Arthurian legend, and to knightliness at large.

Peyton Manning, our group quickly agreed, was the Lancelot of quarterbacks. Like Lancelot, he’s unquestionably the most talented of his cadre—a fact confirmed when he was, to no one’s surprise, named this year’s league MVP. He’s also, like Lancelot, doltish and unbeautiful: in T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, Lancelot is, to quote King Arthur, “the ugliest man I have ever seen”; Peyton can’t claim that honor, but he does have a grotesquely large forehead, scarred by the Riddell helmet he is forced to squeeze over it. And both Lancelot and Peyton are doomed to be surpassed by a dim younger relative—in the former’s case, it’s the unbearably pure Galahad, Lancelot’s son, the only knight allowed to glimpse the Holy Grail; in Peyton’s case, it’s his younger brother, Eli, whose childishly transparent expressions of disappointment have been turned into exemplars of gif art, and who already has two Super Bowl rings to Peyton’s one. Which made Tom Brady his Tristan: not quite as skilled, but achingly handsome.

Metaphors aside, there is a sort of gallantry we expect from our athletes. NFL players do not, of course, swear their troth to a code of chivalry; nevertheless there are rules, largely unspoken, to which professional athletes are expected to adhere. Off the field, if not on, while speaking to the press, if not while concussing one another, we want our athletes, like our knights, “to refrain from the wanton giving of offense”; “to eschew unfairness, meanness, and deceit”; and “to live by honor and for glory.” Read More »

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Off the Grid

June 13, 2013 | by

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As they do every year, the prestigious Cal Hi Sports magazine, an influential prognosticator for gridiron talent, made a list in 1994 of the top prep quarterbacks on the West Coast. Among them were Kevin Feterik at Los Alamitos, who would end up starring for QB-haven BYU; Cade McNown, a lefty from Oregon who later stewarded UCLA’s mini-dynasty; Brock Huard from Puyallup, Washington, who started as a freshman for the University of Washington and is now an ESPN analyst; a Michigan-bound senior from San Mateo named Tom Brady; and me.

At Beverly Hills High School I was that Johnny B. Goode character with “Golden Boy” sewn into the back of my letterman jacket. My favorite t-shirt read “Football is Life, the rest is just details,” and that was an understatement. I wasn’t the fastest or strongest kid, and, with my frame (6’1”), I’d never be considered anything but tiny at the college level, so I determined to be the smartest player in the game. And I studied like a Manning, becoming a geek of the game, a savant who could quote you strings of statistics like a cabalist. In contrast, the only thing I remember from my actual classes at the time is a sign one teacher had mounted near the clock in their room. It read: “Clock watchers, time will pass, will you?” I did, but barely. My devotion to the game was total.

So when, five years later, six months after quitting football for the second and final time, I woke up on a park bench in Berlin with no map, and no itinerary, I had no idea who I was.

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